Deconstructing Harry

Dwindling returns from 'Deconstructing Harry'

December 21, 1997

By Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- There was a time when the release of a new Woody Allen movie was truly a matter worth celebrating, at least from where I was sitting. Films like "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" (and such lesser-known marvels as "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Stardust Memories") are repeated-viewing touchstones for me, reminders that the well-turned spoken word is every bit as evocative as a good, solid laser shot from the Death Star. That they're as consistently hilarious as any movies made in the sound era also doesn't hurt.

Much has been written about Allen's screen persona over the years (schlemeil, neurotic, obsessed with death, etc. Allen himself must be sick of it). The dwindling returns this persona has been generating as time goes on has also been a topic of discussion. So a lot of people are getting excited over the seeming reinvention of the Wood Man in his latest film, "Deconstructing Harry."

Because of the script's willingness to focus on perverse sexuality, and the characters' completely un-Woody-like reliance on angry four-letter words, everybody seems to believe that Allen is setting some new course for his Everyman character (OK, his Every Rich New Yorker Man character). But don't get too worked up. This isn't "Reconstructing Woody" so much as it's re-imagining scenes, gestures, and plot devices from Woody's far-better built, older successes. It's also, oddly enough, one of the funnier movies he's made this decade.

Allen plays Harry, a writer who's published a comic novel that very thinly disguises the sexual exploits (and quirks) of his friends and family. Harry, in a move that Allen hasn't attempted to this degree since "Stardust Memories," is a thoroughly irredeemable jerk. He openly admits that he's childish and sexually immature. He sleeps with fans when given the opportunity, but his main source of "intimacy" is the call girls that he frequents. (He says that he's always got a wad of "hookin' money" around the apartment.) He's had an affair with his sister-in-law (the hysterically profane Judy Davis), has herpes, and wonders what it would be like to get down-and-dirty with practically every woman he sees. Except, of course, for his (now ex) wife, played by Kirstie Alley.

Fair enough. That certainly isn't a character that Allen's played before. But the mechanics of telling Harry's story, the situations in which the events take place (and even the way the camera is recording the scenes), are dead lifts from his past work. As much as I laughed at "Deconstructing Harry," it's an exceptionally lazy film, especially when you know that Allen is capable of much sharper construction. In fact, some of this stuff even plays like his earliest films, things like "Take the Money and Run" and "Bananas." Those movies were the work of a stand-up comic goofing around with his camera, not a filmmaker telling a story, and to revert to that sort of slapdash jokiness at this late stage of the game suggests a severe lack of inspiration on Allen's part.

Parts of the movie are composed of actors playing the characters in the novel, with Woody relaying information via voice-over. There are a couple of funny situations here (adulterers Richard Benjamin and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss being caught in flagrante delicto by a blind Grandma who has no idea what's going on), but just as much feels like one of Allen's "aren't I smart" late '60s "New Yorker" articles. One sequence, in which the young Harry is visited by a hooded death figure at an inopportune moment, has been done before (and better) by everyone from Monty Python to, well, Woody Allen, if you count his Ingmar Bergman take-off in "Love and Death." It generates exactly one worthwhile punch line, then we hop on to the next situation.

Voice-overs and imaginary scenes from the novel are the sort of techniques that can make a script lose its footing if the writer isn't careful. They're devices that allow you to throw things against the wall without any dramatic buildup just to see if they stick, but, unfortunately, more than a few of the scenes Allen has written for "Deconstructing Harry" do more shticking than sticking.

The major one comes near the end of the film when Harry literally takes an elevator to hell (there's an entire floor reserved for the media, which, frankly, doesn't seem like enough space to me) and visits Billy Crystal as the devil. Again, how many times have you seen something like this? It would be different if Allen had some kind of huge payoff in mind, but he basically does the usual semi-intellectual riffs (the devil uses an air conditioner because it ruins the ozone layer) that are funny, but then what? Are we really supposed to feel that a story has been told because Woody Allen is suggesting that maybe the mensch isn't such a nice guy after all? You don't feel like you're witnessing a revelation; you're more likely to think it's about time (after nearly 30 years of supposed self-examination) that Allen got around to fully examining the other side of the coin.

As is usually the case in a Woody Allen movie, there are lot of big stars playing small parts, and some of them are wasted. There are nice moments from both Davis and Alley (and, shockingly, even Demi Moore is fun!!), but Robin Williams is nothing more than a sight gag as an actor who's literally grown out of focus to the extent that his wife and kids have to wear glasses to look at him. Again, it's a funny idea and nothing more. Later in the film Woody himself starts getting blurry, but, ultimately, it's all too clear that he's not sure what he's trying to accomplish. You'll still laugh a lot, though, and that's a great deal more than can be said for most of the so-called comedies that get foisted on us every year.

"Deconstructing Harry" is far-and-away the most foul-mouthed movie Woody Allen has ever directed. There's an overload on the "F" word and its variations. You also get a couple of blunt sexual situations, and, as a special bonus, hookers. This is supposed to pass for courageous artistic growth, but, if you squint, it might also suggest self-loathing. Rated R. 93 minutes.

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