Mighty Aphrodite

Allen's 'Aphrodite' Inspires Uncomfortable Laughter


Friday October 27, 1995

Like the tortoise in Aesop's celebrated fable, Woody Allen has used not flash but persistence to become one of the most prolific of active American filmmakers. "Mighty Aphrodite" is his 25th feature as a writer-director in an impressive string that would have been difficult to predict when "Take the Money and Run" started things off in 1969.

A sketchy trifle that is sporadically amusing but also off-putting around the edges, "Aphrodite" is an example of how Allen has been able to make just about a film a year for more than a quarter of a century. Because he is funny when he wants to be, because comic lines and situations come easily to him, Allen rarely turns out a film that doesn't give you something to laugh at. But his movies also have a tendency, as this one does, to feel insubstantial, like a first draft he didn't have the patience to pound into shape.

Most of the laughs in "Aphrodite" come from a clever framing device. The film opens in a stone amphitheater that hosts a genuine Greek chorus declaiming lines from English translations of several classic plays. But suddenly the chorus is saying, "Take, for instance, the tale of Lenny Weinrib, as timeless as anything Greek," and into a tale of modern Manhattan we go.

This chorus reappears periodically, offering New York sportswriter Lenny (played by Allen himself) counsel and even once breaking into a spirited rendition of Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me." Also showing up in costume in Manhattan are the chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham), the blind seer Tiresias (Jack Warden) and other robed characters, all of whom have lots of advice to offer Lenny, who needs it.

Lenny's problems begin with a conflict with wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). An art dealer who wants a gallery of her own, she is also eager for children but feels that "too many exciting things are happening in my business" to produce one the old-fashioned way. So, despite Lenny's serious protests, they adopt an infant boy named Max.

As the boy grows up, Lenny comes to cherish Max. But his relationship with Amanda drifts as she begins to pay increasing attention to her patron, Jerry Bender (Peter Weller). Partly to compensate, Lenny starts to obsess about finding Max's birth mother, who he increasingly imagines to be the repository of all possible virtues.

Well, not exactly. Once Lenny locates Linda Ash (another pleasant surprise from the versatile Mira Sorvino), she turns out to be a bubble-headed prostitute who has a squeak for a voice and is quite serious about her work in pornographic films.

Not telling her why he's interested, and against the advice of the Greeks and everyone else, Lenny pursues his interest in Linda, telling himself he wants to straighten out her life for Max's sake. It turns out to be more of a job than he anticipated.

Though there is a fair amount of amusement to be found in Lenny's story, it is difficult to watch it and merely laugh. Another way Allen can make so many films, aside from not always honing the scripts, is by working in variations off his own situations and possibly even his own fantasies. One cann't help, for instance, thinking of ex-love Mia Farrow in Allen's dismissive skewering of a woman who considers herself too busy to have children of her own.

And though Allen's fascination with older men/younger women relationships has yielded successes like "Manhattan" and "Husbands and Wives," the older he gets the more uncomfortable these liaisons are to watch. And throwing in the venerable male fantasy of getting involved with an attractive prostitute adds to the off-putting taste that not even a finely tuned sense of humor can totally erase.

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