A funny thing happens to Allen in 'Aphrodite' It's Greek to him: Woody Allen takes on Greek tragedy in his latest film and plays it for laughs -- usually successfully.

November 03, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Mighty Aphrodite" is Woody Allen's take on the great fate-haunted, destiny-tossed Greek dramas of yore, and he does manage to come up with something Sophocles never thought of: a tragedy with a happy ending.

But what did Sophocles know?

The movie is a return to the loopy, not terribly deep mode of parody out of which Allen first hacked his career with films like "Sleeper" (sci-fi), "Love and Death" (Russian novels) or even "Zelig" (documentary). That means, consequently, that it's still a further turn away from the powerful examinations of moral ambivalence that have consumed him over the past decade, as in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" or "Husbands and Wives." In other words: He wants to be funny ha-ha again.

Funny ha-ha? Not entirely, not with the manic crude intensity that marked the first phase. But let's call it pretty funny ha-ha. Or maybe call it: funny ha.

Anyhow, we start with one Lenny Winerib (Allen himself), familiar from a dozen other Allen versions of Allen: a passive, whining schlub who is unbearably self-conscious yet good-hearted and needful of a moral life. And also from whose mouth falls, like droplets of dew amid the morning daffodils, world-class one-liners. rim shot after rim shot after rim shot. The guy is still the rim shot champ of all time. He has more career rim shots than Bob Hope.

This Lenny, a free-lance sportswriter, is married to a wannabe art dealer (Helena Bonham Carter), and they live comfortably in an Upper East Side apartment that might be a stretch for a director with 19 Academy Award nominations (but no matter; this is not a documentary).

Meanwhile, in either Olympus (Greece), or Paramus (N.J.), the gods and their chorus are musing on the doings of man, led by F. Murray Abraham behind a tragedy mask that looks as if it were imagined by Edvard Munch. They have taken an interest in Lenny and his tribulations, of which there are many.

The first of these is the couple's adoption of a baby, whom Lenny adores. But his tragic curiosity gets the best of him, and he has to seek out the mother, who turns out to be a hooker and porno actress named -- well, she has many names, and I won't even try to get the funniest past The Sun's ever-vigilant Taste Police. But generally, she goes by the name Linda.

Why, it's Mira Sorvino, turned star by this movie, in a bubbly, frothy performance of utter Aphrodite-like charm and abandon. I don't know how mighty she is, but she sure is fetching. Lenny falls not in love but something far worse: He falls in responsibility, which means he must get her out of the Life and elevate her to a status appropriate to the father of his son. Of course, he can't tell her who he is but has to come on like a mysterious benefactor.

At the same time, his wife is being pressured by a sleazy art gallery owner (Peter Weller) into having an affair. So simultaneously, Lenny is falling in love with his son's mother and losing his wife. The Gods, naturally, find this very amusing.

Allen has lots of fun on this one. The Chorus, which begins as a mannered mass of anonymous masks like its solemn forebears, develops into almost a Mel Brooksian paradigm of inappropriateness, its members bursting into dance routines, arguing among themselves, supplying a great deal of comic energy.

Meanwhile, it can only be said of Allen that you love him or you want to squash him. I fall in the love category: Though he can be grating at times, he's still a wonderful comic persona, with that piercing whine and that utter sense of adorable ditheriness.

He seems fully recovered from his various catastrophes of the last few years, and while he evidently lacked the confidence to get before the cameras on "Bullets Over Broadway," it's terrific having him back where he belongs.

'Mighty Aphrodite'

Starring Woody Allen and Mia Sorvino

Directed by Woody Allen

Released by Miramax

Rated PG-13 (adult themes)

Sun score: ***

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