The last time Woody Allen made a candy-colored nostalgia piece set in the New York of yesteryear, it turned out to be one of his least exciting films-the craftsmanly but drab Radio Days (1987). So it's understandable if audiences approach Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (Miramax, R) with trepidation. At a glance, everything about this sumptuously designed movie, from its Tin Pan Alley title to its Damon Runyon gangsters to its inevitable soundtrack of golden oldies (''Let's Misbehave,'' ''Toot, Toot, Tootsie! [Good-Bye]''), smacks of cobwebby quaintness. For a while, even the story seems quaint: It centers on an idealistic bohemian playwright of the 1920s, the earnest, bespectacled David Shayne (John Cusack), who mounts one of his plays with financial backing from a Mob boss named Nick (Joe Viterelli). The catch is that he's required to find a part for the gangster's moll, a dumb-as-they-come bimbo flapper (Jennifer Tilly) with a voice of tin. Yearning to stay true to his ''vision,'' the playwright now faces the deadly prospect of compromise, of diluting his integrity with reality. Oh, no, I thought, not another pat allegory of Woody the tortured artist, Woody the pure! And not another cozy-empty Woody Allen confection by now we've sat through more than enough of those.
Well, Bullets Over Broadway is indeed a confection, but this one has wit and sass. Cowritten by Allen and a new collaborator, Douglas McGrath, the movie, in a delightful caprice, ends up turning the tables on Allen's honorable-nerd alter ego. As rehearsals for the play commence, David assembles a flaky crew of thespians, including Tilly's one-dimensional Harlow knockoff, Olive Neal; the gluttonous English hambone Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent); the perky Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman), who delights in telling jokes no one quite gets; and Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), an edging-over-the-hill Broadway grande dame whose passion for martinis is surpassed only by her burgeoning affection for David. Most of the actors have ideas for changing David's script; each wants his or her role to stand out (or, in Olive's case, to feature fewer big words). But the one who ends up wielding the most influence on David isn't an actor. It's Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), the glowering, thick-lipped gangster assigned to look after Nick's girlfriend. He couldn't give a damn about the theater but he knows life, and what every thuggish bone in his body tells him is that David's play stinks.
Out of sheer boredom, Cheech begins to make suggestions, and the play improves. Suddenly, it has vibrance, passion, heart. Cheech is soon reveling in his new role as ghostwriter; it turns out there's nothing he won't do to protect ''his'' play. Palminteri, the writer and costar of last year's A Bronx Tale, plays Cheech as threatening, charismatic, and oddly intuitive a bully for art. It's a touching and spirited performance that brings a comic charge to this light-farce variation on Cyrano de Bergerac.