Like its close relative ”Shakespeare in Love,” Illuminata celebrates theater folk living the theater life. Unlike its Brit-besotted cousin, however, this handsome, airtight meditation on art, celebrity, love, and rampant repertory-group horniness indulges in a lot of very American navel gazing – the prerogative of producer-director-cowriter John Turturro.
The hyphenate also costars as Tuccio, resident playwright in a colorful, turn-of-the-century New York company fortunate enough to include actors played by actors including Bill Irwin, Rufus Sewell, Ben Gazzara, and Aida Turturro, the filmmaker’s cousin – while the filmmaker’s wife, Katherine Borowitz, plays Rachel, the group’s manager, leading lady, ideal of womanhood, and Tuccio’s beloved. The playwright’s self-absorbed worries include: When will the world recognize my genius? Is Rachel more famous than I am? Can two artists work together and love one another despite all temptations and competition?
Although Borowitz, with her dancerly bearing, is regal as a patient woman who stands by her imperfect man, when ”Illuminata” lingers on these questions – which the married couple has probably had to grapple with – the production feels self-congratulatory and illuminated only dimly. On the other hand, when the players cavort (Susan Sarandon hams genially as a sharky diva), ”Illuminata” cracks all-too-easy jokes about the world of greasepaint.
Cheesiest of all (and at the same time most audience-pleasing, of course) are the laughs milked at the expense of critics, whose worst attributes are rolled into the grotesque gay fop played by Christopher Walken, shooting barbs like a champion archer. ”He was so young, and so untalented,” the man quips about an actor who falls ill on stage. The miserable, loveless laughingstock of a scribbler does, however, redeem himself at the end in Turturro’s fantasy: He too is moved by Tuccio’s brilliance.