Deconstructing Harry

Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Caroline Aaron, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Eric Lloyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, Robin Williams. (1997, R, 95 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 26, 1997

The Nineties haven't been a particularly good decade for Woody Allen, either artistically or personally. Game genre efforts such as Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway begat the dreadful miscalculation of Everybody Says I Love You, while the straightforward comedies and dramas yielded such homage-laden misfirings as Scenes From a Mall, Shadows and Fog, and Mighty Aphrodite. Oh, there have been sparks all throughout, especially visible in his decade-starter Crimes and Misdemeanors, the enigmatic Alice, and the almost diaristic portent of things to come, Husbands and Wives. Of his private life, we know both too much and too little. Then along comes a movie like Deconstructing Harry, which marks the writer/director/actor's return to top form, once again using the stuff of his life to create the stuff of his fiction. It's his most personally revealing movie since Stardust Memories, riddled as it is with lacerating insights and penetrating self-analysis. Harry Block, the film's protagonist (played by Allen) is bound to infuriate some viewers, though. Harry is a successful New York novelist who transforms his life experiences into thinly veiled fictional recreations, and also appropriates and distorts (without consent) the lives and intimate details of the others who share in his real-life dramas. Harry is a selfish, misogynistic, pill-popping, vindictive, hooker-addicted, foul-mouthed cur of a human being, but he's also very funny and self-aware. When Harry confesses, “I'm no good at life but at least I write well,” it's impossible not to be struck by the nakedness of the remark. Deconstructing Harry also shows Allen to be in peak writing form, once again proving that he's a master craftsman of brilliant one-liners. (It's tempting to simply devote this space to a mere recitation of the film's best lines -- everything from the observation that two most beautiful words in the English language are “It's benign” to these thoughts on aging: “It was a lot easier waiting for Lefty than waiting for Godot.”) When first we meet Harry, he has worked his way through three wives and six shrinks and, nevertheless, still wants to nail every woman he sees. He is about to be honored by the college that also once expelled him and, having no one with whom to share the occasion, he snatches his son from school (defying his custody agreement) as well as bringing along his hooker du jour. The structure of the movie dips back and forth between these current events in Harry's life and enactments of illustrative scenes from his novels played by the real characters' fictional counterparts. This creates a large and interesting cast of performers who, with a few odd exceptions, serve the story well. It also calls to mind such Allen films as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Stardust Memories but perhaps more directly such artist-in-turmoil films as Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries or Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. It's probably inevitable that Deconstructing Harry will renew the public deconstruction of Woody. It takes a brave filmmaker to throw such highly refined fuel on the fire.

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