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Deconstructing Harry

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Deconstructing Harry

Starring: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: R
RunTime: 93 Minutes
Release Date: December 1997
Genres: Comedy, Romance

*Also starring: Caroline Aaron, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Judd Hirsch

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"I'm the worst person in the world," moans Woody Allen's character, Harry Block, in Mr. Allen's latest exploration of the psyche, "Deconstructing Harry." When challenged by the view that Hitler was worse, Block thinks it over briefly and retorts, "Well, yes, after Hitler, Goebbels and Goering--I'm the fourth worst person in the world." That one-liner, one of the many laughs in this briskly paced dark comedy about a guy who never grew up, raises the tantalizing issue: Just how much of the movie is art, and how much is Woody's own life? The point is exploited by the issue of "Time Out" magazine, which hit the newsstands one week before the opening of the film. While Allen does mull over some real-life events in "Harry"--his many divorces and plethora of psychiatrists--we want to know: is this guy who has so frequently turned nebbishness into entertainment really so down on himself? It appears so, that is, if you believe another gem from the lips of Harry Block, "Writing and entertaining people is not enough."

Backed up by a stellar cast made up largely of Friends of Woody, "Deconstructing Harry" examines the tribulations of a fifty-something guy (Allen is himself 62) who is as obsessed with sex as a teenager with a library of Playboys. He simply cannot pass an attractive woman without imagining what physical intimacy would be like with her. He is so consumed by its fires that he has writers' block--a point made doubly clear by her very name. Still, he has churned out some decent manuscripts in the past and so the college he attended decades earlier has decided to honor him. No matter that the university expelled him at one point for giving the dean an enema. Harry Block has become its golden boy and now, despite his many conquests, he seems unable to find someone to join him socially on that day. Ultimately he digs up a motley crew made up of his son Hilly (Eric Lloyd whom he has "kidnapped" because the boy's mom Joan (Kirstie Alley) will not permit him to go; his friend Richard (Bob Balaban); and a hooker, Cookie (Hazelle Goodman) with whom he had spent the previous night. Off goes Harry Block in his car in a theme that brings to mind "Wild Strawberries," Ingmar Bergman's 1957 drama about a Stockholm professor who reviews his life's disappointments while traveling to a university to receive honors.

As in Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author," Woody Allen's latest movie features a continuous interplay of real-life people with fictional folks created by Harry Block in his novels. It's no wonder, then, that we see the author as a younger person in the fanciful Ken (Richard Benjamin), who grabs another man's wife during a Sunday barbeque and has a quick round of sex with her in the kitchen, just meters away from the woman's husband. (In one of the movie's more hilarious scenes the blind grandma suddenly enters the room while the couple are in flagrante and misinterprets Ken's rapturous outbursts as agreements with some of her statements.) Harry proceeds to take us around and around the block to introduce others in his life, others who are so thinly disguised that he is confronted by a furious and comically seething Lucy (Judy Davis), one of the author's flames, who goes ballistic at the author for revealing all.

"I create my own universe," says Block, and "I make everybody suffer and turn it into literature." And we the audience profit mightily from the writer's own dysfunctional life as he lays on invention after delightful fabrication to entertain his loyal followers in their theater seats. Lacerating others and himself alike, he torments his sister Doris (Caroline Aaron), whom he visits after a four-year hiatus, spoofing her decision to become a truly practicing Jew--saving some prize comments for her Orthodox husband Burt (Eric Bogosian). Block, whose deity is science, exclaims, "Between Pope and air conditioning, I'll take air conditioning." To his old friend Larry (Billy Crystal), who steals Block's girl friend Fay (Elisabeth Shue), he offers the fires of hell--which the camera displays to us in all its incendiary splendor.

"Deconstructing Harry" features some particularly strong roles for women, with Kirstie Alley coming across with exquisite humor as a former wife, a psychoanalyst, who frequently interrupts a session with a client to verbally abuse the poor Block and throw him out of the house.

We learn the meaning of the title only as the story comes to a close, as one appreciative woman who shows up for the college honors ceremony advises Block, "Your stories are sad, but I like to deconstruct them because they're happy underneath." Does this mean that Woody Allen himself, who in real life has been on the couch for decades, has a glimmer of awareness that underneath it all he really is a happy man? It must might be that he finally accepts the counsel of another dignitary that "to be alive is to be happy."

"Deconstructing Harry" emphasizes Susan E. Morse's sharp editing. Morse flashes backwards and forwards seamlessly, making the story line absolutely clear, and not infrequently interrupts jump-cuts a scene to underscore the title character's uneven emotional life. Allen is in his typical role as the confused, unhappy nerd, though he seems to succeed in the sexual area--a point which unfortunately undercuts any criticism of his immaturity. Robin Williams performs well as one of Block's alter egos, a guy who is literally out of focus (Carlo Di Palma's camera makes the man authentically blurred), with Judy Davis and Kirstie Alley standing out as exceptionally whimsical.

One day after screening the movie I happened to listen to Gary Null's talk show on WBAI-FM. Null laced into those of us who insist on being martyrs, people who refuse to believe that life is within their control. "We see Woody Allen movies about dysfunctional people as though there would be something wrong with watching a happy family at work," complains the show's host. Sorry, Mr. Null, but the sophisticated among us who love anything touched by Woody Allen are no longer amused by stories of the Brady family. Humor derives to a great extent from the suffering of others. We laugh at entertainers who slip in banana peels, not at those who walk calmly down the street without a care in the world. "Deconstructing Harry," brimming with oddball, often hilariously damaged people, should convince Mr. Allen that writing and entertaining us with such humanity is absolutely enough.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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