When Harry Met Woody

Allen's funny, even as a selfish boor--why are we not surprised?

Deconstructing Harry opens riotously with a middle-aged man and his lover--who is also his sister-in-law--surreptitiously coupling at a family get-together. It seems at first that we're about to be shown the story of this pair (Richard Benjamin and Julia Louis-Dreyfus). But before long, we realize that neither of them is a "real" person at all--they're both the latest fictional creations of the protagonist, a novelist named Harry, whose fantasy we are seeing. Harry, in turn, is played by his creator, Woody Allen.

Harry's real sister-in-law (Judy Davis) is furious with him--so furious she pulls a gun--because the Benjamin and Louis-Dreyfus characters in his latest book are thinly disguised versions of Harry and her. It's not the first time Harry's gotten in trouble for slapping different names on those involved in his fairly sordid sexual escapades, comically exaggerating them, and calling the results fiction.

Harry's own libertinism has made him rich and famous, but it's also beginning to make him sick of himself. As he heads out of middle age, he's less able to fancy himself cute for wanting to have sex with every woman he sees, or for never quite feeling satisfied with whatever woman he's currently married to or dating, or for his habitual patronizing of hookers. He's a disconsolate, whiny, passive-aggressive, pill-popping wreck, and what's worse, he's feeling written out.

Woody Allen written out? Fat chance--it'll be a while before he gets tired of telling us about himself. Otherwise, though, it's obvious that Allen intends Deconstructing Harry as his big confessional work, the movie in which he admits that he really is an asshole, not just a sweetly neurotic Puck.

In Allen's least likable film, his sourpuss 81U2 of 1980 called Stardust Memories, he played a film director beset by idiotic admirers to whom he plainly felt superior. That movie's episodic plot wasn't too different from that of Deconstructing Harry. In the former, Allen's character reluctantly travels to a retrospective of his films, where he's fawned over by fanatical weirdos; in Deconstructing, Harry travels to his alma mater to be honored.

But the new film is far more engaging because Allen reverses the theme--here Harry's the grotesque caricature, and the people he meets, even his admirers, are depicted as decent and dignified. And this quality seems to rise naturally out of the material; it doesn't come off as a self-conscious strategy.

As Harry travels upstate with his son (Eric Lloyd), an old friend (Bob Balaban) and the previous night's hooker, more of his life, and his skewed, absurdly funny stories, is revealed to us. Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Demi Moore and Kirstie Alley weave in and out of the film, passing judgment, as women from Harry's past--some flesh and blood and some fictitious. The phantoms, male and female, won't be conned by Harry's sniveling excuses and self-justifications. As his alter ego Benjamin observes, they reside in his head, so, unlike his analyst (or, it's implied, Allen's audience), they know the truth.

There are flights of fancy on the level of Allen's best work. In one scene, Harry visits Hell, gives his father (Gene Saks) a dismissive absolution, then asks a passerby what he's in for. "I invented aluminum siding," the man admits. Harry finally confronts the Devil (Billy Crystal), who receives him warmly as a kindred spirit, and encourages him to take up residence in the netherworld as if he were selling him on moving to Florida.

In a more earthbound moment, Harry and his friends drop in on his sister (the wonderful Caroline Aaron), who's married to a right-wing Zionist (Eric Bogosian). When the sister grouses that Harry's life is based on "nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, orgasm," Harry's comeback may just be the single best one-liner that Allen has ever written.

The film as a whole is very, very funny, for that matter. The script is well-structured, and there are even a few touching moments. Deconstructing Harry only feels awkward in its efforts to be a flashy departure from Allen's usual routine. The editing, for instance, is deliberately jagged and full of jump cuts. The dialogue is cruder, and the sexual moments a little more graphic than we're used to seeing in an Allen film. He's trying to shake up his own style, which has grown smooth and unobtrusive through the years, to give it a more raw, violent tone.

But deliberate rawness is a contradiction. The attempt just feels labored and obvious, much the same as his frenetic hand-held camera work in early scenes of Husbands and Wives. As a stylist, Woody Allen is irredeemably tasteful, and his desire to disturb us stylistically is naive. He doesn't seem to realize that some of us have already found his films subtextually disturbing on the good, old-fashioned level of content. Consider the murderous rage toward women as impediments to an aesthetic life that simmered under the surface of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Bullets Over Broadway.

It's not as if we bought that sweet-neurotic act wholeheartedly anyway; we just let him get away with it because he's so freakin' funny. But Deconstructing Harry suggests that he may have bought into it, until now.

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