This 1994 film is one of Woody Allen
's dramedies on the creative process.In the 1920s
, idealist playwright David Shayne (John Cusack
) moves to New York City to produce a play. He and his girlfriend Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker) fit in well enough in the show business world and David finds a mentor in Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner), a bohemian artist who says that artists can get away with things normal people can't because artists live in their own moral universe
With the help of his associate Julian Marx, David gets a play produced even though his last two endeavors were flops. Unfortunately there's a catch: the play is backed by Nick Valenti, the head of a violent Mafia gang
. Despite worries that he's selling out, David agrees to direct the play according to Valenti's conditions. The main condition being that Valenti's girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly
) receive a starring role in the play despite her terrible acting skills. Olive's hostile bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) is required to sit in on rehearsals and guarantee that everyone treats her right.
The rest of the cast is David's dream cast. He manages to persuade one-time legendary actress Helen Sinclair
(Dianne Wiest in her second Academy Award
under Woody Allen) to play the lead role, but her overbearing personality and constant demand for script changes proves problematic. David also hires Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), an excellent performer with a serious eating addiction
But the biggest problem is with the play itself. It is pretentious and badly written, so much so that Cheech starts making suggestions on how to improve it. David begrudgingly takes Cheech's writing advice and ends up having to decide whether art or life is more important.
- All Part of the Show: During the show's opening night on Broadway, a pair of mobsters shoot and kill Cheech backstage. The audience thinks the gunshots were all part of the show. In fact, the show gets rave reviews because of the "symbolic" gunshots in the ending.
- Author Existence Failure: In-Universe, It Makes Sense in Context
- Bad Bad Acting: Olive, and it's not an Informed Ability. We get to see how bad she is - HA!
- Berserk Button: Olive's bad acting finally pushes Cheech over the edge.
- Big Eater: Warner Purcell is a compulsive eater.
- Bittersweet Ending / Downer Ending: David's play is a hit but all the best parts of it were written by the now dead Cheech. David discovers that he is not really an artist and plans to move back to Pittsburgh and marry Ellen.
- Broken Pedestal
- Contemplate Our Navels
- Doing It for the Art: David and eventually Cheech as they write the play.
- Enforced Method Acting: Near the end.
- Genki Girl: Eden Brent is a giggly flapper.
Helen: She's perky all right. She makes you want to sneak up behind her with a pillow and suffocate her.
- Hidden Depths: Cheech. A mob goon turns out to be a brilliant playwright.
- I'll Take Two Beers Too:
Helen: Two martinis, please, very dry.
David: How'd you know what I drank?
Helen: Oh, you want one too? Three.
- Ironic Echo: "Don't speak. Don't speak. Don't speak." Doubles as a Freud Was Right.
- The first line of the film is David shouting, "I'm an ARTIST!" The last line of the film is David admitting, "I'm not an artist."
- Jerk Ass Has A Point: Olive is dense about most things, but she's right about David's stilted dialogue.
- Lady Drunk: Helen Sinclair.
- Large Ham: Helen, both on stage and in real life.
- The Mafia
- Mythology Gag: A dying Cheech tells David to have the Sylvia Poston character, played by Diane Wiest, reveal she's miraculously pregnant. That's basically how Hannah And Her Sisters ended, with Wiest's character making that revelation.
- Omniscient Morality License
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: " Olive, I just want you to know one thing: you're a horrible actress."
- Reality Subtext: The running theme of the film is that a true artist has their own moral code. This is probably a rebuke by Allen to those who decried his affair and marriage to Soon-Yi Previn.
- The Roaring Twenties
- Rule of Symbolism
- Running Gag:
- Cheech's favorite spot to execute rival gang members. Olive becomes the last one.
- Warner Purcell keeps eating... and eating... and eating...
- Sassy Black Woman / Servile Snarker: Venus.
Venus: (to Olive) You better get in the mood, honey, 'cause he's payin' the rent.
- Show Within a Show: We get to see a lot of the play in various states of development.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Cheech's assassinations are accompanied by the 1930 standard "Up a Lazy River". It's signals a Brick Joke when Cheeck is driving Olive to his "favorite spot".
- Throw It In: Olive thinks you can do this in a play. She claims it's ad-libbing, but it's completely inappropriate.
- Cheech's dying line, an Ironic Echo of Helen's, "Don't speak", was ad-libbed by Chazz Palminteri.
- Title Drop: In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, the character of Sylvia cries out "Oh, God of our fathers, save me!" The Show Within a Show's title is God of Our Fathers.
- Triang Relations
- True Art Is Angsty / True Art Is Incomprehensible. Flender firmly believes this ("My plays are written specifically to go unproduced!"). David initially believes this. Cheech thinks it's pure bullshit (and he turns out to be the best writer of them all.)
- White-Dwarf Starlet: Helen, though She Really Can Act.
Helen: I never play frumps or virgins.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: David Shayne is painfully naive at times when it comes to producing a play.