Mighty Aphrodite

Once upon a time, the parallels between Woody Allen's life and art were a large part of his charm. His fans--a small but ardent cult--took it on faith that the characters Allen played on-screen bore more than a passing resemblance to their creator. Seeing his movies was as close as we could get to having dinner with him (at Elaine's, of course), and it seemed pretty close: after all, we got the witty dinner table repartee, the intimate confessions, the philosophical speculations. Little wonder, then, that many were disappointed when it turned out Allen didn't practice the high moral standards he preached. And little wonder, too, that many critics have insisted on judging his post-scandal films not on their artistic or comedic merit, but on how closely they mirror the revised popular perception of Allen's character.

His new film, Mighty Aphrodite, has already suffered its share of knee-jerk scorn; a month before the movie was scheduled to open, The New York Times ran a scathing critique--not in the Arts and Leisure section, but on the Op-Ed page. It's a shame, because Mighty Aphrodite is actually one of the funniest and most sweet-natured films of Allen's career. He plays Lenny Weinrib, a middle-aged sportswriter whose wife, Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), manages a Soho art gallery. As the film opens, the childless couple is debating whether or not to adopt. "Not me," Lenny says. "I don't want to adopt." Why not? "Same reason I wouldn't lease a car: pride of ownership." Cut to Lenny, cooing and cradling his new adopted son, Max.

Turns out Lenny is a great father, not to mention an upstanding husband--can't you just hear Allen's detractors sharpening their knives?--and Max is a terrific kid. Still, five years later his marriage is in trouble, the result of his ambitious wife's busy work schedule and her infatuation with the owner of her gallery (Peter Weller). Depressed about his crumbling marriage, Lenny decides to seek out his son's birth mother, convinced that she'll be the smart and witty spitting image of the son she gave away. He steals her records from the agency that arranged the adoption, follows a couple of loose leads, and finally finds her in Manhattan. She's not exactly what he expected: Linda (Mira Sorvino) is a deliciously trashy would-be actress who supports herself by turning tricks and appearing in the occasional porn film (her screen name is Judy Cum).

Once Lenny finds Linda, Mighty Aphrodite turns into a hysterically crude cross between Pygmalion and Born Yesterday. Allen and the six-foot-tall Sorvino make a terrific comic duo: she is a tower of animal sensuality; he is a shack of nervous intellect. His first instinct is to educate her, despite her obvious intellectual limitations. Later, he settles on finding her a respectable mate. Throughout the film, Allen uses a traditional Greek chorus (led by Amadeus's F. Murray Abraham) to comment on the action. At first, the device seems mannered, but once Allen starts interacting with the chorus members it works to hilarious effect. And despite the chorus's predictions of doom, Allen delivers his characters a happy ending.

Okay, so maybe Mighty Aphrodite's ultimately sunny world view isn't an accurate reflection of Allen's life. And maybe Allen isn't the noble gentleman Lenny turns out to be (Lenny only sleeps with Linda once, after his wife leaves him, and eventually manages to save his marriage). Give the guy a break: he set out to make a comedy, not write his autobiography. As comedies go, this may be the funniest of the year.

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