Deconstructing Harry

'Deconstructing Harry': Dark Laughter When Life Is All Halloween


December 12, 1997

Private life caught up with Woody Allen several years ago and now, with rancorous brilliance, he returns the favor. "Deconstructing Harry," his angriest film since "Stardust Memories" and also his most viciously funny, lets Allen expand on a thought raised less directly in "Bullets Over Broadway": that the person ruled by creative imagination may be indifferent, not to say ruinous, to the happiness of those around him. And that even if he wreaks havoc, maybe he thinks he has no choice. Like the man almost said, the art wants what it wants.

"Nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, orgasm!" shouts one of the film's many outraged women at Allen's character, Harry Block, a writer whose hilariously veiled fiction hits too close to home.

"In France I could run on that slogan and win," replies Harry, who makes no apologies and certainly has a way with a one-liner. Not to mention a short story: "Deconstructing Harry" flits deliriously from real-life episodes to Harry's outrageously embellished versions, which create absurd, paper-thin disguises for himself and his lovers. In the world of Harry's imagination, it's always Halloween.

Harry's grudge-settling fiction sometimes flatters him ridiculously, but "Deconstructing Harry" itself cannot be dismissed as self-serving. Working in a deliberately tougher style than that of his other romantic comedies, Allen uses jump cuts, raw language, conspicuous drinking, prostitution and a dearth of feel-good music (the old standard heard over the credits is "Twisted") to underscore his film's bitterness. Yet the effect of all this, like it or not, is terrifically liberating. This poisonous, brazenly autobiographical comedy shows off the best of Allen's misanthropic humor.

Harry Block, under siege, has been through three wives, six psychiatrists and assorted girlfriends, apparently turning most of them into enemies along the way. So the gloves come right off as the film begins, with Harry furiously browbeaten by Lucy (Judy Davis), his onetime sister-in-law. Lucy is outraged by Harry's having written a story about their illicit affair. What's more, as we see, he transformed his coarse mistress and scruffy, unglamorous self into perfect bourgeois stereotypes. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Richard Benjamin are seen earnestly playing these fictionalized versions of the film's real people in a sly opening scene. Throughout "Deconstructing Harry," Allen uses similar vignettes to irresistibly funny effect.

But there's more at stake here than there was in "The Purple Rose Of Cairo," where he also shifted wittily between truth and fiction. Here the rage is real. Harry uses his writing to skewer his sister Doris (Caroline Aaron), whom he describes as so "Jewish with a vengeance" that she prays over anything, which gives the film its best bawdy sight gag. In his imagination, he has combined her with Joan (Kirstie Alley), his most vengeful ex, and cast the character as an ultra-pious Demi Moore.

That Joan is a harpy, and that she is a psychiatrist who desperately hates Harry for running off with one of her young patients (Elisabeth Shue), is one of the film's many cruel tricks. But Allen is hard on Harry, too, letting the character complain that he has no soul and offering plenty of evidence for that claim. When one of Harry's stand-ins, played by Robin Williams, suffers from the strange malady of being out of focus, the selfish solution is that his entire family wear glasses for the sake of his condition. "You expect the world to adjust to the distortion you've become!" one woman in the film complains. And, as Ms. Davis's Lucy puts it, "You take everyone's suffering and turn it into gold -- literary gold!"

Though "Deconstructing Harry" often follows a familiar Allen format, indulging in a string of domestic arguments about Harry and his misdeeds, it also bursts into wild fantasies with wonderful regularity. Billy Crystal, playing a character who Harry is pretty certain is the devil, since he always smells like sulfur, turns up on a tour of a hell that has an elevator. ("Floor seven, the media. Sorry, that floor is all filled up.") Though this sequence looks like a crazy hybrid of "The Devil's Advocate" and "Alien Resurrection," it shows off the film's inspired way of mixing daydreams with revelation. "We both started out wanting to be Kafka," the devil tells Harry. "You got slightly closer."

The film's looniest flight of fancy casts two old Jewish women as Lucy and her sister Jane (Amy Irving), and sets them at a bar mitzvah with a "Star Wars" theme, complete with Wookie bartender. There one of the women learns that her husband Max is an ax murderer, but the Harry-like Max just tells her to take this in stride. "He killed his family and ate 'em up!" one of the women says in horror. "If I tell you why I did it," Max offers, "do you promise not to noodge me?"

This kernel of truth about its monstrously self-involved, self-justifying hero is finally, above and beyond all the misogyny, what keeps "Deconstructing Harry" so scathingly good. Last seen crooning and chasing Julia Roberts around Venice, Allen this time spares no one from his terrible acuity, least of all himself. Yet despite its abundant darkness, the film is kept aloft by so much knowing laughter. For instance, there is Harry remembering his youth as the time he thought "Waiting for Lefty" was scarier than what he finds himself doing now: waiting for Godot.

As ever, Allen rounds up a splendid ensemble cast, which also features Mariel Hemingway as a disapproving matron and Tobey Maguire as the young hero of a Harry Block story, one that describes a first encounter with a prostitute. In a film whose hero frankly acknowledges his taste for women he can pay, Hazelle Goodman is drolly matter-of-fact as the person in pink hot pants who accompanies Harry on his rambling adventures. The radiant Ms. Shue, as Harry's adoring young girlfriend, fits especially well into the Allen canon.

Aided by the same technical contributors who traditionally give his work its visual luster, Allen writes outstandingly acerbic dialogue this time. The best one-liners, like the whole film, mix wit with melancholy self-knowledge. For instance: "Tradition is the illusion of permanence." "The most beautiful words in the English language aren't 'I love you' but 'It's benign."' And: "I think you're the opposite of a paranoid. I think you go around with the insane delusion that people like you."

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