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Dirty Old Harry

[whitespace] Deconstructing Harry
Typecasting: Woody Allen plays pretty much himself in 'Deconstructing Harry.'

Woody Allen deconstructs himself

By Richard von Busack

WOODY ALLEN'S newest comedy, Deconstructing Harry, can be summed up by one of Peter Bagge's cartoons. Headlined "Executive Joke," it shows a bald-headed old exec having cocktails with a stunning young woman. "He: My wife doesn't understand me. She: I understand you. You're a horny old man who wants a blow job." If "blow job" offends you, be warned; Deconstructing Harry's script is built on the expression. Allen will alienate a large part of his core audience here, particularly the remaining women who had forgiven him for the Soon-Yi scandal.

Working the same terrain as Philip Roth, Allen plays anti-hero Harry Block (as in writer's, which he has), a hard-drinking, pill-swallowing novelist who smashed up his marriages with his promiscuity. He's on the edge of a crisis because he has to go back and receive an award from his university (it's Bergman's plot from Wild Strawberries). Block's life story is contrasted with the fictional characters he's created as a novelist.

Thus Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as "Leslie") and Judy Davis (as "Lucy") play the same characters in Block's fictional and real versions of the same events. Elisabeth Shue, Kirstie Alley, Amy Irving and Demi Moore deliver variations on the other women he's loved and alienated.

DOCUMENTARIAN Terry Zwigoff told me that after his film Crumb came out, some deluded movie executives were proposing a fictional version of the crotchety cartoonist's story. It seemed like an idiotic idea, and yet here it is.

Allen and Crumb are physically similar, similarly aged, both living for "sarcasm and orgasm," both uniting satyriasis and satire. And Deconstructing Harry is cartoonish. The device of doubling characters--combined with an excess of jump cuts--keeps the film jagged and hard to follow. At times, it's an actor's nightmare. To distinguish the various characters, each new one has to repeat enough exposition to tell who is playing whom. Davis and Dreyfus don't get enough time to build their roles, and both their parts are nothing more than agitated cameos.

Deconstructing Harry is really a portfolio of sketches, but it does contain some fine caricatures, and Harry's various short stories add small diversions to the mix, including a tale of an actor (Robin Williams) who falls victim to a strange malady.

Deconstructing Harry takes the patronizing qualities of Allen's last few films to a new extreme--the low points involve Hazelle Goodman as Cookie, a black prostitute in lace-up PVC hot pants. Cookie is not just the spontaneous, life-loving force black people always get to play in white movies. She's also a bit dumb. So was Mira Sorvino in the equally patronizing Mighty Aphrodite. But Sorvino never faced a repulsive joke about a "black hole" during one of Allen's trademark rants about the death of the universe.

To pass judgment on either Allen's off-screen conduct or on Harry Block as a character means climbing on a moral high horse that would throw me if I tried to ride it. Anyway, I'm sure there are plenty of critics ready to take that pony for a trot. Deconstructing Harry is a mess. The inspired little stories don't have punch lines. There are shifts in mood that I don't think any director could transcend. Harry orders sex, as if off a menu, in one scene and leads a group (including Cookie) in a chorus of "Red, Red Robin" a few moments later.

Yet, in unpredictability and abrasiveness, Deconstructing Harry is Allen's most interesting movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery. His last three pictures, Bullets Over Broadway, The Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You, seemed like reactionary, safe pictures, designed to prove what a harmless old codger Allen was after his troubles.

Since the identification of the Allen character with the real-life Allen is so close, the part of Harry Block is a risk for him. Playing an obscene old man who only really cares about sex liberates Allen; it's as if he doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks, and there's an edge to his humor once again.

The ending is so desperate and utterly shameless that it could only be justified if this were Allen's last movie ever. Harry insists on being loved when he should have settled for just being grudgingly liked. And yet this kind of valedictory shamelessness is preferable to the moldering romance and nostalgia Allen has been reveling in lately. Woody Allen may not be cuddly anymore, but now he's not irrelevant anymore, either.

Deconstructing Harry (R; 95 min.), directed and written by Woody Allen, photographed by Carlo Di Palma and starring Allen, Kirstie Alley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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