Deconstructing Harry

When 'Harry' Met Woody


Friday December 12, 1997

People are going to be furious at Woody Allen's latest film and it's not difficult to see why. Writer Harry Block, played by Allen himself, is petty, spiteful and vindictive and his self-absorbed, misogynistic antics are painful to experience.

But "Deconstructing Harry" is also bracingly funny, and from a dramatic and psychological point of view, it is compelling viewing. A bravura act of self-revelation, its vivid portrait of one man's fears, fantasies and neuroses uses a mixture of reality, imagination and comedy to create one of the writer-director's most involving films.

What makes "Harry" especially fascinating is the way it counterpoints recent Allen films like "Mighty Aphrodite" and "Everyone Says I Love You." There, too, he played an unlikely Lothario who always manages off-putting romantic scenes with young and attractive actresses. But while those films have been unhappy masquerades, trying without success to pass off their smarmy aspects as light entertainment, Allen here drops the mask.

So though Harry Block's actions are familiar, no attempt is made to paint them as charming. Allen, in fact, originally wanted to title his film "The Worst Man in the World," and the jazz standard "Twisted," with lyrics like "My analyst told me I was out of my head," runs over the opening credits. Spiritually bankrupt and sexually obsessed, Harry is uncompromisingly presented as an unsavory scoundrel, albeit one with a sense of humor. Told that his life is all about nihilism, sarcasm and orgasm, Harry shoots back, "In France, I could run on that ticket and win."

Less a mea culpa than an ecce homo, "Harry" feels, despite pro forma disclaimers to the contrary, like the most nakedly autobiographical of Allen's recent works, complete with the usual references to baseball, Chinese food, therapy and Manhattan's Upper West Side. In this, his 28th theatrical feature, the director has come closest to the lacerating and defiant self-revelation of one of his idols, Ingmar Bergman, though it goes without saying that Allen's soul is both funnier and considerably more Jewish than Scandinavian.

Twenty-eight is a lot of features, and while some have a tossed-off, who-cares feeling about them, "Harry" is the opposite. Its intricate and carefully worked out structure would be beyond a less experienced director, and Allen, collaborating once again with cinematographer Carlo DiPalma and editor Susan E. Morse, has worked more substance into his 95 minutes than many of this season's behemoths have managed at twice that length.

"Harry's" opening sequences give an indication of Allen's method. Lucy (Judy Davis) is shown furiously exiting a Manhattan cab on a rainy night not one but some half a dozen times, the repetition emphasizing the extent of her rage. Then comes a vacation home scene where a writer named Ken (Richard Benjamin) is seen having farcical sex with his sister-in-law Leslie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

Next it's back to Lucy, who has come to Harry's house with the intent of murdering him because his last novel caused the breakup of Lucy's marriage and created a rift between Lucy and her sister Jane (Amy Irving), Harry's third wife. The farcical sex scene we've just seen turns out to be a dramatization of Harry's novel, and Lucy is the real-life sister-in-law who's had to face the effects of Harry's callous use of personal experience in his fiction. "You take everyone's suffering and turn it into gold," Lucy hisses at him as only Judy Davis can. "I want to kill the black magician."

Lucy may be hysterical, but she is dead-on correct. Harry has always heedlessly exploited the people closest to him for his work and been indifferent about the consequences. And among this film's cleverer aspects are dramatizations of Harry's earlier fiction, including a deft Kafkaesque story about an actor named Mel (Robin Williams) who discovers that he's literally gone out of focus. Harry even meets one of his fictional doppelgangers outside the Red Apple Rest, a venerable New Jersey roadside restaurant, and has a conversation with the double about the kind of person he's become.

"Deconstructing Harry" also exposes us to the contorted personal side of a blocked writer who drinks too much, swallows pills to counteract depression, is ambivalent (at best) about being Jewish and complains to his latest analyst about the way his compulsive sexual fantasies have wreaked havoc with his life. "Did Raoul Wallenberg," he muses, "want to bang every cocktail waitress in Europe?"

After being simultaneously involved with wife Jane and sister Lucy, Harry left both of them to carry on with the (what else but) younger and more attractive Fay (Elisabeth Shue). And the writer's selfish attempts to manipulate her life for his own short-term benefit is one of the film's major strands.

In the midst of all this, Harry learns he's to get an award from Adair, the college that expelled him once upon a time. Not surprisingly given his repellent personality, no one wants to go with him to the presentation, and the group he ends up with--including his young son, old friend Richard (Bob Balaban) and a hooker named Cookie (Hazelle Goodman)--leads to absurdist scenarios that are comical and devastating.

Allen has helped make the film's problematic scenario involving by assembling his usual command performance cast and utilizing them in unexpected ways. Who else would have Eric Bogosian as a religious zealot or even think of casting Demi Moore as an Orthodox wife fervently reciting blessings in Hebrew? And Allen's sense of humor, with its irresistible zest for the dark side ("To evil," a toast runs, "it keeps things humming") is as sharp as ever.

But what feels like "Deconstructing Harry's" almost compulsive honesty is its strongest lure. When Harry says, "I'm no good at life but I write well," it's a fitting coda to a scathing look at one man's disastrous experiences with marriage, adultery and the literary life. Self-flagellating and fearless, "Deconstructing Harry" does a lot of things but holding back because of what an audience might find objectionable is not one of them.

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