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The Boston Phoenix Unblocking Harry

Woody Allen deconstructs himself.

By Gary Susman

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Deconstructing Harry, Written and directed by Woody Allen. With Caroline Aaron, Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric, Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Eric Lloyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, and Robin Williams. A Fine Line Features release.

In one of those life-imitates-art-imitates-life moments of synchronicity of the kind that marks Woody Allen's movies, I glimpsed Philip Roth on a sidewalk on Manhattan's Upper West Side just hours before I watched Deconstructing Harry. Harry is essentially a Roth novel on celluloid, a scabrously funny, deeply disturbing fable about a testosterone-poisoned self-loathing Jewish writer. Any resemblance to the real-life Allen (or Roth) is more than coincidental but less than incriminating. (Later, I read a rumor that Roth is currently dating Mia Farrow.)

Harry Block (played by Allen) is a successful Upper West Side novelist who cannibalizes his own life for his art. He's betrayed almost everyone in his life, either by caricaturing them in his books or through his unquenchable libido. Married and divorced three times, Harry has slept with innumerable inappropriate women: prostitutes; a sister-in-law, Lucy (Judy Davis); his analyst, Joan (Kirstie Alley); her patient (after he's married Joan); and such pliable young acolytes as Fay (Elisabeth Shue). The film is set during a few days when Harry's crises converge: Lucy has threatened him with a gun upon reading about their affair in his latest book; ex-wife Joan is curtailing his access to their young son; he learns that Fay is abandoning him to marry his erstwhile best friend, Larry (Billy Crystal); and he's suffering for the first time from writer's block (get it?).

The film posits the inability to distinguish art from life as Harry's root problem. (And Allen's? True, the prolific Allen has clearly never suffered from writer's block, and he slept with his girlfriend's daughter, not his wife's sister. Otherwise, it's hard to argue that Harry Block isn't Woody Allen.) Late in the film, Harry even admits that a character who seems a thinly veiled version of himself really is him. Throughout the film, Harry's stories are acted out on screen by an absurdly overqualified cast of bit players including Robin Williams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stanley Tucci, Julie Kavner, Tobey Maguire, Richard Benjamin (who played Roth's fictional alter egos in Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint), and Demi Moore (who gets laughs just by being cast as the fictional Joan, a shrink turned religious Jew). As Harry's mind unravels, his fictional characters start popping up to berate him in his real life (à la Purple Rose of Cairo). Further, the movie's dense and complex structure, laden with flashbacks, stories, fantasies, and doubled characters, makes the distinction between Harry's life and his fiction especially confusing for the viewer.

Allen has a lot of fun fudging the art-versus-reality conundrum, and devoted Allenologists will enjoy sifting for clues, but these Pirandellian games are a red herring. Ultimately, the moral of the story, as in Bullets over Broadway, is that it's possible to be both a great artist and a morally reprehensible human being. Once Harry learns to accept the fact that he is, in his words, a guy who can't function well in life but only in art, his writer's block disappears. Such an acknowledgment doesn't excuse Harry's (or Allen's) moral failings, but neither does it cancel out his art's own merits.

In the case of Deconstructing Harry, those merits are a funny screenplay filled with the usual Allen one-liners, a bracingly frequent (for Allen) use of profanity for comic purposes, some hilarious visual set pieces (Robin Williams as an actor who is literally out of focus; a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah), and Allen's sardonic approach to the Big Questions (religion, sex, the afterlife). Then again, there's the film's misogyny (most of the women are unflatteringly lit harridans). Hazelle Goodman shines as the first prominent black character in an Allen movie, but she's an earthy prostitute in pink hot pants. I laughed throughout the movie, then felt nauseated afterward. Allen has created a bold, scathing, fuck-you of a film, but I wouldn't necessarily want to run into him on the sidewalk.


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