Biting, bitter and occasionally witty Review: Woody Allen's 'Deconstructing Harry' is so near the edgy, he almost falls off, as his lead character pushes the art of kvetching to the higher plane of pure rant.

January 02, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Maybe it's the appearance of a gun in the first act that tells you "Deconstructing Harry" is going to be a little bit edgier than your typical Woody Allen film. Or maybe it's Allen's jarring use of jump cuts during the movie's first moments. Or his experimentation with shifting time periods and realities. Or the script, which is among the most angrily vulgar of Allen's career.

In any event, none of these departures adds up to much in the way of substance. For all its bite, "Deconstructing Harry" is a disappointment, providing an unsettling portrait of an artist whose gaze remains monotonously self-absorbed, even when it's fixed on a dizzying ensemble of characters. For all its occasionally amusing moments, Allen's 27th feature film ultimately leaves the bilious aftertaste of splenetic rage rather than the more subtle flavor of Allen's best, most bittersweet testaments to life's comic tragedy.

Allen stars as Harry Block, a novelist who, true to his name, is battling a mid-life artistic block. Having just published a roman a clef exposing a past affair with his former sister-in-law, Harry has incurred the wrath of his ex-wife (Judy Davis), who shows up at his apartment with the aforementioned firearm.

As if a threatened homicide weren't bad enough, Harry is being )) honored at his alma mater, and another ex-wife (Kirstie Alley) won't let him take their son. On top of that, Harry's ex-girlfriend (Elisabeth Shue) informs him that she's marrying one of his old friends.

As Harry unravels -- his mental state reflected in a series of flashbacks, fictional scenarios re-enacted from his novels and a road trip involving a prostitute and corpse -- he comes to realize that the very neuroses that make his life unliveable make it possible for him to create. He's a failure as a man, but his art is worth it.

This kind of self-satisfaction is palatable only when it's accompanied by some sort of self-awareness -- the kind of compassionate equanimity that characterized Federico Fellini's "8 1/2 ," for example, or even "Stardust Memories," Allen's own failed but honest homage to the Italian film.

"Deconstructing Harry," however, is suffused with a peevish, embittered tone that renders it impotent. Allen's neurotics have always been complaining, selfish and self-centered, but he was able to find some heart or wisdom amid the kvetching. Here, Harry Block seems to be engaged in one long rant. Allen's female characters are reduced to harridans, harpies or whores; the male characters remain fuzzily indistinct (one, played by Robin Williams, is literally out of focus).

The benevolent distance from which Allen once observed the world of his own making has become a haughty, narcissistic remove.

Technically, "Deconstructing Harry" marks an achievement on the part of Allen, who uses editing more forcefully than ever to create a sharp, layered portrait of how we distort our own memories. There are flashes of the signature Allen wit (an elevator trip through hell reveals a floor reserved for critics and the media, as well as the guy who invented aluminum siding), and he has coaxed some good performances from an all-star cast. Demi Moore, as a newly reformed religious zealot, is actually funny and believable (one disappointment is Elisabeth Shue, who seems sweetly out of her ken amid the neurotic hue and cry).

Taking a page from "Mighty Aphrodite," Allen once again turns to a prostitute as a metaphor for unconditional love and acceptance. To make the waters murkier, he makes this character an African-American woman, played by Hazelle Goodman with a dignity the part, as written, doesn't deserve.

Come to think of it, Allen displays more affection for his backdrop of New York -- from the sumptuous Upper West Side apartments to a melancholy upstate carnival -- than he does to the 18 characters who flit across the movie screen of his consciousness.

"Deconstructing Harry" confirms that, at an average of one movie per year, Allen is a proficient filmmaker. Whether he can engage his characters in any meaningful, benevolent way remains stubbornly open to question.

'Deconstructing Harry'

Starring Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue

Directed by Woody Allen

Rated R (strong language and sexuality)

Released by Fine Line Features

Sun score **

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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