If the subject matter of Mighty Aphrodite raised eyebrows, Deconstructing Harry must have had Woody Allen fans doing a disbelieving double take. The light and tuneful world view of Everyone Says I Love You gives way one year later to this caustic extended riff on one of the filmmaker’s favourite themes: the nebulous intersection of life and art.
Woody Allen plays Harry Block, a successful writer suffering from writer’s block for the first time in his life during the days leading up to his old college honouring him. Past lovers, family members and friends take Harry to task for using their lives in his fiction, as do characters from that fictional world. Finally, Harry realises what his next novel should be about: a writer who, much like himself, can only function in art and not in life.
Deconstructing Harry presents a similar story to Stardust Memories, that of an artist blurring past and present, art and life, while heading out of town to an adoring public. This film is much less freewheeling in its structure however, and much funnier too. Woody Allen gets to present extended short stories here, which are similar in tone to his earlier short, Oedipus Wrecks. The story of an actor, played by Robin Williams, who is permanently out of focus is pitched just right, while the story of an elderly woman who discovers her husband’s ‘dark secret’ (that he was once a murderer and cannibal) is outright hilarious.
By this point in his career, however, we almost take Woody’s clever narrative tricks for granted. That leaves us to be critical of the story, characters and dialogue. And it’s the dialogue that most stands out here, laced with easily the most profanity for a Woody Allen film. The director has stated that he only wound up playing the title character after everyone else turned him down, and you can’t help but try and imagine the others he approached on his list: Dustin Hoffman, Robert de Niro, Albert Brooks and more. Perhaps because he has played the same limited type of character for so long, when we see Woody sleeping with a prostitute (Hazelle Goodman), denigrating women to their face, drinking, popping pills and being generally angry with the world (instead of just resigned) it’s jarring. He even drives a car.
Having said that, it’s likely that Woody wanted to make a film that was jarring. This is his first film since Husbands and Wives that wades into some murky sexual politics and outright nastiness. At the same time, counterbalancing the potentially off-putting tone is a full bench of 90s comedy talent clearly having a ball being in a Woody Allen film: Robin Williams, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Kirsty Alley, Elisbaeth Shue and Bob Balaban are all wonderful, and Judy Davis is reliably funny and nutty at the same time as a vengeful former lover. Billy Crystal also stands out as an avuncular Satan mixing martinis in Hell for Harry while the two swap stories of their awful behaviour.
“It’s me, thinly disguised,” says Harry Block at one point about his main characters. As with Stardust Memories, many people rushed to infer that Harry was a thinly disguised Woody, especially given the scene in which is kidnaps his son from an unstable ex-partner. Once again, Woody denied any resemblance. All these years later, whatever the climate of the time was or the personal mood Woody was in has rolled away and we are left with the film itself.
Like the song ‘Twisted’ by Annie Ross that plays over the titles, and the jump-cuts used throughout, this is at times an alienating film much like Stardust Memories. But it is also really funny in places (the Star Wars themed Bar Mitzvah is a brilliant, never commented upon backdrop to one scene) with a top cast and, yes, a heart deep down beneath the cynicism. Very deep down. Like the main character, it’s not an easy film to love but it is one worth spending time with once in a while.
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