Film Reviews

The Devil and Woody Allen

Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry is a film made by a free man -- free, certainly, in a good way, and perhaps also in a not-so-good way. Liberated, for whatever reason, from the need to play a nice guy, playing the bad man he does here frees Allen of the optimistic sanctimony that has weighed down so much of his recent work. Allen the filmmaker honors the social contract by creating an entertaining film, even as Allen's character -- a writer named Harry Block -- accepts no social obligations whatsoever, cheerfully betraying loved ones in person and in print as he lies, dissembles and fornicates his way across New York state.

In interviews, Allen has attempted to separate the character of Block from himself, pointing out his efforts to cast other actors in the role. He needn't have bothered -- he is Harry, the same way he was Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, or Sandy Bates, the depressed filmmaker in Stardust Memories, which is this film's most obvious forebear. Some of Allen's films have been patently autobiographical, others sheerly fictional, but in almost all of them, Allen has played essentially the same part, that of a nice guy and perennial victim. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen liberates himself from the pity trap. In his acting, Allen has always been a victimized vegetarian in the social food chain; with this film, he turns voracious carnivore, sinking his teeth into the role of a scoundrel with a sharpness of attack absent in his work for many years.

Allen's biography tells us that the lovable schnook this tough, wiry man inhabited and rode to fame 30 years ago was the deliberate concoction of an ambitious introvert who coolly assessed what garnered the best reaction in his standup act. Coming from a short, bespectacled fellow, lines like "I was beaten up by Quakers" got the big laughs. While such lines were funny in his best films of the 1970s, Allen's limited range became more and more outdated in the 1980s. It was probably last used effectively in Crimes and Misdemeanors, back in 1989; in the 1990s, the act became embarrassing. In the recent Everyone Says I Love You, for example, Allen was quite unbelievable romancing Julia Roberts, looking, as a friend of mine put it, like her elderly Uncle Max.

With Harry Block, Allen the actor is reborn at age 62, blending familiar pieces of his persona into this new, blunt, unpleasant character. Harry's quirks -- his distaste for the country, his contempt for drugs -- are boilerplate Allen; the film's many references to its creator's recent starring role in the tabloids will be obvious to all. What's new in the film is the directness with which Harry speaks about his sexual desires and other issues -- most notably his Jewish identity, a topic that, aside from quips, Allen has pretty much left alone for most of his career. One of the best scenes in the new film is Block's argument with his sister and Zionist brother-in-law (played by Caroline Aaron and Eric Bogosian) over the nature of Judaism. Allen dares an angry joke about the Holocaust and gets away with it, an audacity both Allen the actor and Allen the filmmaker sustain through most of the picture.

Deconstructing Harry is full of surprises, right from its opening frames. Around the time of his breakup with Mia Farrow, Allen almost involuntarily resorted to an unpleasant shaky-cam look, perhaps as a manifestation of the vertigo we can guess he felt at the time. Other than that, the look and feel of his films have stayed on a fairly even keel for two decades. Viewers know the drill: plain titles on black background, jazz standards on the soundtrack, amber-hued cinematography, big names in small parts. Deconstructing Harry plays with these conventions.

Allen breaks up the titles with flash cuts of an enraged Judy Davis arriving at Block's door. Jump cuts interrupt the action throughout the film, continuously propelling the action forward. For once, Allen's eclectic, star-driven casting makes sense: Stars such as Robin Williams and Demi Moore play creatures of Block's imagination rather than serving as distracting cameos, as with the pointless use of Jodie Foster and Madonna in Shadows and Fog.

The many illustrated fantasies in Deconstructing Harry are one of the film's most appealing elements. Allen reveals himself once more to be one of the cinema's most creative imaginations as he brings to the screen the whimsies prowling through Harry Block's mind. If Allen is not Jean Cocteau, Jacques Tourneur or David Lynch -- that is to say, able to create fantastic worlds through pure imagery -- he is, like Jeunet & Caro or Michael Powell, able to find good ways to illustrate his clever ideas on film. Harry Block's trip to hell, with Allen wisecracking his way through a lurid papier-máche landscape out of Bosch, is a good example, and one of the highlights of the film. To a greater filmmaker, Harry Block's selfishness might have been shown as hell for others, but that is not Allen. To an introvert like Block (or Allen), hell, as Sartre would say, is other people.

This is the bad side of Allen's existential freedom: the dizzying willingness to play at wickedness that so enlivens this movie. Yes, the devil always gets the best lines, but here Block gets to out-talk the devil himself. Allen the filmmaker is still not completely able to resist the temptation to have Allen the character one-up others less clever than he, which includes everyone. This -- along with Deconstructing Harry's uncertain overlap with the real Allen's life -- reminds me of the late works of one of Allen's heroes, Charles Chaplin. In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin played a wife-killer who gets away with it (almost) -- a coldly brilliant illustration of the filmmaker's core misogyny. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen plays an all-around heel who gets away with everything, and always will.

One hopes that Harry Block is purely the product of Allen's imagination. (There are ways in which Philip Roth seems a more obvious model for Block than Allen himself.) It's an imagination, however, that has opted out of the social world the rest of us inhabit; like Harry Block, Allen has written his own social contract and made us like it. I'm not at all concerned here with Allen's private sins, if any. Rather, I'm struck by his chilly isolation from the rest of the world, the blinkered view of our shared community revealed in film after film. After years of ignoring the black community, Allen finally gives a large part to an African-American (Hazelle Goodman) in this movie -- she plays a whore. Everyone else, as always in Allen's work, is rich, privileged and white as a snail's belly. As a social being, Block sins not in hiring prostitutes but in treating them as rented meat; not in cheating on his lovers but in humiliating them before the community in print. I'm not sure that Allen thinks this way, but the filmmaker gives us no sense that he recognizes that Block is a scoundrel in those ways, as well as the more obvious and colorful ones. It's not apparent from Deconstructing Harry that Allen, isolated genius millionaire celebrity that he is, ever will.

Deconstructing Harry.
Directed by Woody Allen. With Allen, Judy Davis, Billy Crystal and Elisabeth Shue.

Rated R.
95 minutes.

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Gregg Rickman