Broadway Danny Rose

May 24, 2011

Woody Allen has sometimes been accused of “playing Woody Allen.” He retains essentially the same character from film to film: the uncomfortably intellectual neurotic with a romantic streak as long as the Brooklyn Bride.

As a criticism of his acting, this gripe doesn’t really hold water. Some great actors—Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, for example, not to mention Allen’s fellow comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—played basically the same characters in most of their films, and they now look like our best actors. It’s difficult, but somehow satisfying to an audience, for an actor to simply be himself on the screen.

That’s pretty much what Allen has done so far, and he’s done it well. In his new movie, Broadway Danny Rose, Allen essays a role that is clearly a “character”: the hyperactive, herky-jerky, small-time talent agent Danny Rose, whose invariably bizarre acts include a one-legged tap dancer and a woman who plays music on half-filled water glasses.

Danny Rose is a funny creation, with his hackneyed patter (a typical conversational gambit is, “Dahling, can I just say one thing?”), his schnooky energy, and his polyester shirts. He also has a touching belief in all his clients, no matter how awful they are—although he draws the line at managing the stuttering ventriloquist.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks: a group of New York stand-up comedians (played by real comics such as Sandy Baron and Corbett Monica) sit around in a diner and reminisce about good old Danny Rose. They tell anecdotes to crack each other up, and then one of them tells the all-time Danny Rose story, which will take up most of the movie.

It’s about the time Danny was managing the comeback of a former boy singer, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who is now well past his prime—if he ever had one. On the day of Lou’s comeback shot, a Milton Berle TV special, Lou’s girlfriend decides she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Poor Lou, devastated, starts hitting the bottle just hours before airtime.

Danny enters the scene to convince the girlfriend—played with almost unrecognizable vivaciousness by Mia Farrow—that she should show up for the special. He pursues her through a wild series of adventures, notably a nearly fatal encounter with her large and hot-blooded Sicilian family, who seem to have watched The Godfather one too many times.

Broadway Danny Rose takes on the style of a screwball comedy at this point, as we see that these two people may be falling for each other in the course of the excitement. The handsome black-and-white photography by Gordon Willis adds to this flavor.

But Allen only rarely conjures up the magic of a great screwball romp. He still may be too uptight as a director to really fly with this kind of material—remember how uneasy he seemed with the sunniness of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy?—and he occasionally slips out of character, speaking philosophical Allenisms that are wiser than Danny Rose’s powers would suggest.

And yet this is a nice movie. Allen has his tone of sweet melancholy very much in evidence, and he appears to be content to go for the low-key chuckle rather than the boffo belly-laugh these days. And that approach is perfectly in keeping with this modest tale of small-time people with big dreams.

First published in the Herald, January 1984

Not sure why I went with the elaborate opening to the review, except it really was striking that Allen was doing a character piece in this one. The movie still holds up pretty well, and Farrow gives one of her best performances (that was the really startling turn, more than Allen’s). The movie’s best touch is the meeting of the Borscht Belt comics telling their stories—those guys crowded the talk shows in the late Sixties and Seventies, bouncing around from Merv Griffin to “Love, American Style.” A fine Allen grace note to gather them here.