Deconstructing Harry

Bankrupting Woody

Mary Brennan

There are a few excruciatingly funny moments in Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, but they serve to underscore rather than disguise what's wrong with the rest of the film. This is certainly the most dreary, most self-involved, most dispiritingly unfunny little comedy in the director's oeuvre. Worse yet, its every calculated, borrowed, flat maneuver telegraphs a new kind of desperation.

Allen spends most of the movie stealing from himself, which would be perfectly acceptable except for the fact that he doesn't pilfer any of his great lines or memorable bits. Just the tedious little cinematic shrapnel that wasn't particularly engaging the first time. The story revolves, like Stardust Memories, around an artist -- a writer, in this case, in the Philip Roth mold -- being honored while his badly lived life devolves into chaos. Harry Block has spent his career betraying his wives and girlfriends, and ends up with no one but a prostitute and a remote acquaintance to accompany him to the ceremony meant to honor his work. The story is built out of flashbacks and figments -- characters from his books and short stories turn up here and there, alongside the real people they're based on.

In short, a rehash all of the most labored Allen conceits, here flavored by a sour, cynical glibness which we can only suppose is meant to pass for a refreshing honesty. There's a descent, by elevator, into Hell -- Allen cut just such a lengthy sequence from the original version of Annie Hall, but recycles it here, complete with blow job jokes and vaudevillian one-liners about three-way sex with twin sisters. There's the squealing, scatalogical, sex-obsessed profanity of Mighty Aphrodite; the incestuous betrayals -- stripped of any resonance of real feeling -- of Hannah And Her Sisters. Early in the movie a twitchy Judy Davis gets out of a taxi, muttering, then gets out the taxi again and again in a series of pointless jump cuts, evoking the jolting carriage-return photography of Husbands and Wives. As if inducing vertigo and motion sickness in the viewer were just as good as eliciting an intellectual or emotional response.

Oddly enough, the only whiff of genuine emotion comes from Kirstie Alley in a too-small role as a psychiatrist who is one of Allen's betrayed wives. There's the usual five-star ensemble from the blockbuster world and the art movie world -- Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Bob Balaban, Eric Bogosian, Amy Irving, Billy Crystal, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams -- but Alley is the only one who seems like she's not sleepwalking. When she discovers that her mealy-mouthed little husband has seduced one of her patients, she lights into him, delivering such a cloudburst of ferocious, heartfelt profanity -- and more than a hint of possible impending physical violence -- that the movie sputters briefly to life. She has feelings, and no one else in the movie does. Deconstructing Harry plays like a sort of artistic Chapter 11, a very public filing for bankruptcy by a director who no longer has anything to say.