Deconstructing Harry

Woody's Dark Side

John Hartl

Woody Allen's latest picture has been turning up on year-end 10-best lists (in a survey of Cinemania critics) as well as 10-worst lists (a survey of Associated Press critics).

I find myself somewhere in the middle, as I did with Allen's last couple of pictures, Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You. The new movie has a few hilarious scenes (perhaps the peak is a bar mitzvah with an aggressive Star Wars theme), but it's been a while since Allen has come up with something as confident and consistently funny as Bullets Over Broadway.

Deconstructing Harry, which deliberately has more of an edge than any of those pictures, is the story of Harry Block, an aging, foul-mouthed writer who has made a mess of his life and uses his novels to confess his many sins. He alienates friends and ex-lovers by telling too much, he insists on lack of intimacy even with the prostitutes he hires, then gets peeved when one of his girlfriends (Elisabeth Shue) decides to marry someone else (Billy Crystal).

The storyline suggests a mixture of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (Harry is surveying his life during a journey to pick up a college prize) and Fellini's 8 ½ (he's creatively blocked and complains that "no idea holds me"). During the trip, he recalls his affairs and marriages with women played by Kirstie Alley, Judy Davis, Demi Moore, Hazelle Goodman and others, some of them mixed up with fictional stand-ins for Harry played by Richard Benjamin, Stanley Tucci, Tobey Maguire and Robin Williams.

Harry, who is played most of the time by Allen, is not a nice man. Worse, his personal appeal and creative energy have to be taken on faith. What attracts all these women? Is it, as Harry says, that "because of my immaturity, I have a boyish quality that works"?

Allen claims that he created Harry as an example of someone who is self-deceiving and has no self-knowledge, but after spending an hour and a half with him, you don't care. In fact, you may wonder why he's not simply treated as a pariah.

Bullets Over Broadway was the last Allen comedy in which Allen did not appear. John Cusack played the Allen role, and he brought a vitality to the character's adolescent concerns that is missing here. Cusack also had more interesting supporting characters to play off; three of the actors playing those roles earned Oscar nominations for their work, and deservedly so.

In Deconstructing Harry, the cast is huge and talented, but no one gets enough screen time, and Williams is literally out of focus all the time he's on camera.

This is actually one of the movie's best gags -- Williams is playing a version of Harry whose life suddenly becomes unfocused -- and it's one of the few touches here that seems utterly original. Allen intended this movie to be probing and provocative, and some of it is. But too much of it is simply Woody Allen déjà vu.