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, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance) 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 Avatar: David Shayne for Woody Allen. Mark Kermode has said that people are wrong when they say that Allen's not in the film - he is, he's just played by John Cusack.
- Author Existence Failure: In-Universe, It Makes Sense in Context
- Bad "Bad Acting": Olive, and it's not an Informed Flaw. We get to see how bad she is - HA!note
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: What Nick and his goons ultimately think is going on between Cheech and Olive. (No, they legitimately despise each other.)
- Berserk Button:
- Olive's bad acting finally pushes Cheech over the edge.
- Helen despises dogs. When hearing Eden's Chihuahua barking, she snarls, "Is that a mutt I hear?!"
- Big Eater: Warner Purcell is a compulsive eater. Olive even invokes the trope verbatim.Warner: Before we start...Olive: Yeah?(Warner pulls a turkey leg out of his pocket and eats it)Olive: What? Oh. Just a... a little poultry. (giggles)
- 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.
- Brick Joke: The musical cue of "Up A Lazy River" insures you know exactly what is going to happen to Olive. It's still funny when it happens.
- Central Theme: Great artists have their own moral code, and the greater the artist, the more amoral they get.
- Damned by Faint Praise: When David asks Helen if there was ANYTHING good about the "first draft" script (the one he actually wrote, before it was rewritten by Cheech in secret), Helen says that the stage directions were good and the color of the folder was appropriate.note David: (deadpan) Oh, good. I always had a flair for stage directions.
- Doing It for the Art: In-Universe, David and eventually Cheech as they write the play.
- Enforced Method Acting: Near the end.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Despite being a Professional Killer, Cheech flatly stated he never killed anyone who didn't deserve it.
- Flender asks early in the film if you could choose a great play over someone's life. Cheech murders someone over making sure a play is great.
- Cheech uncharacteristically spares Warner's life for dallying around with his boss' girlfriend, because Warner is a great actor and the play would suffer. He kills his boss' girlfriend for being a bad actress wrecking the play.
- Gargle Blaster: Helen at one point drinks what she calls "paint remover" from a flask. From David's reaction, it's unclear whether it really is paint thinner or not.note
- 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.
- The Gift: Examined in the film. Chazz has a gift for writing; where David went to dozens of writing classes, Chazz had no use for "those blue-haired bitches". David struggles to do what Chazz does effortlessly. However, Chazz just thinks David is needlessly pretentious. David counters that as a kid he was taught to play the accordion, and while he was passable, a friend could just press two keys and make magic.
- 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."
- 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."
- Jerkass: Flender. Unlike Chazz, Flender is not an amoral artist. He's just amoral.Rifkin: I paint a canvas every week, take one look at it and slash it with a razor.
Flender: Well, in your case that's a good idea.
- Jerk Ass Has A Point: Olive is dense about most things, but she's right about David's stilted dialogue.
- Lady Drunk: Helen Sinclair. When she orders two strong drinks, David asks how she knew what his favorite drink was. She reacts by saying, "You want one, too?" and orders a third.Sid: You're a star because you're great and you are a great star, but let me tell you something, Helen. In the last couple of years you're better known as an adulteress and a drunk. And I say this in all due respect.
Helen: Look, I haven't had a drink since New Year's Eve.
Sid: You're talking Chinese New Year's.
Helen: Naturally. Still, that's two days, Sid! You know how long that is for me?
- Large Ham: Helen, both on stage and in real life.
- Last-Name Basis: No one calls Flender by his first name, Sheldon.
- The Mafia: The reason the play is produced, and the reason Olive can't be fired.
- Mob War: Nick Valenti is engaged in a turf war with Leo Kustabeck. We even see some of Valenti's mooks getting gunned down in a drive-by.
- 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.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: " Olive, I just want you to know one thing: you're a horrible actress."
- Doubles as a Brick Joke.
- Pretty in Mink: Olive, Eden and especially Helen Sinclair have some very nice looking furs.
- The Roaring '20s: Complete with flappers, bathtub gin, Prohibition gangsters fighting over territory with Tommy guns, and proto-beatniks in Greenwich Village.
- Running Gag:
- Cheech's favorite spot to execute rival gang members. Olive becomes the last one.♪ Up a lazy river by the old mill run... ♫
- Warner Purcell keeps eating... and eating... and eating...
- Cheech's favorite spot to execute rival gang members. Olive becomes the last one.
- Sapient Pet: Eden seems to think her chihuahua is this.Eden: And to think I didn't believe you at first!(said when Warner gets caught stealing her dog treats)
- Sassy Black Woman: Venus, who is Olive's maid, making her a Servile Snarker, too.Venus: (to Olive) You better get in the mood, honey, 'cause he's payin' the rent.
- Shout-Out: A rather subtle one, but the Show Within a Show is named God Of Our Fathers, rather appropriate for a movie revolving around gangsters who get into show biz.
- 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 Cheech is driving Olive to his "favorite spot".
- Take That!: Nick Valenti, a mob boss so culturally barren he has no idea who or what Hamlet is, is named after the head of AMPAS at the time, Jack Valenti.
- 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.
- True Art Is Angsty: 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.Helen: I never play frumps or virgins.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: David Shayne is painfully naive at times when it comes to producing a play.