Urbane of His Existence

Woody Allen and Mel Brooks both started out in movies by making wacky, hip slapstick farces. Allen later grew to be such a snob about comedy that, for an unfortunate period (happily over), he seemed to regard being funny as a form of Jewish self-hatred. Brooks, conversely, has kept dumbing down his style to the point that the hipper 6-year-olds in the audience have begun to roll their eyes at his gags.

Both men, however, matriculated at the same school of drama: sketch writing for TV comedy of the Fifties and Sixties, most notably Your Show of Shows. The connection between the roots of their careers is far easier to spot after seeing Allen's latest, Mighty Aphrodite.

The plot is fairly familiar Allen turf--the worries and love lives of well-to-do Manhattanites--but it's wound around a basic conceptual gag that is right out of Brooks, though Allen has executed it in a far more disciplined manner.

Allen plays a sportswriter whose wife (Helena Bonham Carter) talks him into adopting a child, a boy given up by his single mother. The audience cringes a little at the word "adoption," but the echo of Allen's own trouble passes--this movie doesn't feel borne of remorse or bitterness. Allen and Carter both love the experience of parenting, but the marriage itself cools.

While Allen's mind is wandering to thoughts of extramarital romance, it suddenly occurs to him that the birth mother of his own bright, delightful kid must be someone special. He manages to track her down, and she turns out, instead, to be a ditsy call girl (Mira Sorvino).

Though the girl is gorgeous and sweetly amiable, Allen finds himself too appalled by her and by her pitiable lifestyle to pursue her. Instead, hoping to prevent his son anydisappointment should he one day learn about her, Allen sets about to rescue her by fixing her upwith a seemingly suitable guy, a young boxer (Michael Rapaport) of roughly equivalent mental prowess.

This plot, while maybe a hair more gimmicky than usual, is more or less typical Allen, nothing new. The real twist comes not from the subject but from a bold style of presentation. Allen intercuts his story with commentary from a classic Hellenic chorus in full regalia: masks, robes, choreographed gestures, the whole bit.

But the texts they so grandly recite in an exquisite old amphitheatre--a real one, in Taorima, Italy--are the chatty, gossipy litanies of modern-day New Yorkers. Mythic figures like Jocasta (Olympia Dukakis), Laius (David Ogden Stiers) and Cassandra turn up to kvetch with each other about their domestic problems like neighbors in a Rockaway Beach backyard. The Chorus Leader (a riotous F. Murray Abraham) is half ominous prophet, half gabby mensch.

Without the inspired, beautifully maintained silliness of this linking shtick, and without the touching performance of Mira Sorvino--also excellent in the small role of Rob Morrow's wife in Quiz Show--there would be little to differentiate Mighty Aphrodite from a half-dozen other Allen pictures. It does, though, demonstrate a continuing trend in Allen's work--for better or worse (better, in my view), the man's outlook seems to be cheering up. Either that or the recent threat to the public opinion of him has caused him to act cheered-up.

In the dreary Stardust Memories of a few years back, the director whom Allen was playing was horrified by a studio exec's suggestion that the characters in the absurdist tragedy he was making be sent to "jazz heaven." But the recent Allen comes off like a man who would gladly send his characters to jazz heaven. He's become an odd aesthetic hybrid--Kafka mixed with Damon Runyon.

Mighty Aphrodite: Directed by Woody Allen; with Woody Allen, Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter, F.Murray Abraham, Michael Rapaport, Olympia Dukakis, David Ogden Stiers andJack Warden. Rated

 
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