If you forget about the TV movie Don’t Drink The Water, which I recommend, Woody’s early 90s run of Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You is a highly entertaining run of comedies. Although Bullets has some weighty subtext, mostly these films still hold up with great performances, witty screenplays and a level of inventiveness that later comedies seemed to lack.
In the 1995 film, Mighty Aphrodite, the inventiveness that turns what would be a typical Pygmalion-by-Woody story into something new is the addition of a Greek chorus commenting from an ancient theatre, and sometimes from within the scenes set in modern day Manhattan. But the chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) is more than a gimmick, as the story of this film is one in the tradition of Greek drama with Lenny (Woody Allen) seeking to find out more than he should.
Sportswriter Lenny and his wife, Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), adopt a child. As their marriage begins to crumble, Lenny starts to wonder about his son’s provenance and eventually tracks down the mother – but Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino) is not what he expected. She is a hooker, part-time porn actress and not very bright. As Woody attempts to improve Linda’s life, Amanda begins to fall for her gallery-owner boss (Paul Weller). This sends Lenny to the arms of Linda, but it is only a quick dalliance and the married couple reunites. After a literal deus-ex-machina, when a helicopter pilot crash lands and falls in love with a passing Linda, everyone is happy again. In a Grecian twist, years later Lenny and Linda meet but neither knows that each other’s child is in fact their own.
Mighty Aphrodite picks up from Husbands and Wives with its unusually (for Woody) raw dialogue and frank discussions of sex. Keeping it light, though, is the alternately cartoonish and endearing performance by Mira Sorvino which would win her an Oscar. The scene in which she reveals the pain she feels everyday after giving up her baby for adoption is a heartbreaking and seamless segue from a very funny scene of her demonstrating her non-talents as a legitimate actor.
Like Love and Death, this is a film which gives Woody Allen the opportunity to skewer so-called ‘serious literature’, with the Greek chorus dropping into modern slang and even turning into a Broadway chorus with a couple of songs. The chorus also gives Woody a chance to anticipate his critics. For example, just as we think his character’s attempt to rewrite Linda’s life is chauvinistic, the chorus points this out.
By referencing so much classical Greek theatre, and by sending it up and the same time, Woody gets to have his cake and eat it too. The film balances high-brow humour (such as the use of familiar mythological characters) with low-brow (such as the porn-inspired interior decorating in Linda’s apartment.)
The triumph of the film comes in the closing minutes as we see all the characters’ problems solved, we understand more than the two leads do, and the Greek chorus sings ‘When You’re Smiling’. There is not a lot of cutting in this film (long takes are still preferred by Woody at this point) but here the editing takes on an almost bravura Scorsese-esque quality, similar to the ‘Layla’ finale sequence in Goodfellas. It’s a bittersweet conclusion that works on many levels, and it raises what could just be a clever Woody Allen comedy into something just that little bit better.
It was a pleasure to watch this film again. I hadn’t seen it for many years, though I’ve enjoyed listening to soundtrack of jazz standards many times. The two Dick Hyman arranged chorus numbers are just a small taste of what was to come in Woody’s next movie.
Next week: Everyone Says I Love You