Deconstructing Harry

"Deconstructing Harry" is abrasive, complex, lacerating and self-revelatory. It's also very funny, most of the time. Woody Allen's latest, which kicked off the Venice Film Festival, is one of his most provocative and challenging films. A tremendous, stellar cast is mostly confined to minor roles, but all shine under Allen's assured direction.

“Deconstructing Harry” is abrasive, complex, lacerating and self-revelatory. It’s also very funny, most of the time. Woody Allen’s latest, which kicked off the Venice Film Festival, is one of his most provocative and challenging films. A tremendous, stellar cast is mostly confined to minor roles, but all shine under Allen’s assured direction. With solid critical support, pic will fall in the middle of the box office range for this maverick writer-director — not up there with “Annie Hall,” but not down with “Shadows and Fog.” Euro reactions should be positive for this ultra-sophisticated fare.

This study of a hopelessly immature writer, significantly named Harry Block and played by Allen, is likely to divide audiences, with the majority appreciating the filmmaker’s bold, confrontational use of black comedy to expose the inner torments of his character. Others may not appreciate the brutal honesty, which is new to Allen’s work; there are a significant number of scenes in which betrayed women verbally assault the hopelessly unfaithful Block.

One of the major achievements of the film is that, though it is structured in a highly complex manner, juggling back and forth between the actions of real-life characters and their fictional counterparts, it is always crystal clear what’s going on. This clarity is particularly impressive in retrospect.

Harry Block, though in late middle age, has never really grown up. He has a reputation as novelist and short-story writer, but he has already spent the advance supplied by his publisher for his next book, and is quite unable to find the inspiration to work on it. He’s had three wives and six shrinks (one of whom he married), plus countless lovers along the way — and he thinks he’s abnormally sex-obsessed (he can’t see an attractive woman without wondering what having sex with her would be like). He also openly advocates the use of prostitutes (this is another Allen film, along with “Mighty Aphrodite,” that prominently features a hooker).

Picture’s core, similar to that of “Wild Strawberries” by Allen hero Ingmar Bergman, deals with a journey the protagonist must make to a small upstate seat of learning, Adair College, to receive an award for his life’s work. Though flattered, Block is also nervous and insecure about the trip, and determined to find someone to accompany him.

Trouble is, his latest girlfriend, Fay (Elisabeth Shue), has chosen this moment to marry Larry (Billy Crystal), Block’s best friend, so she’s out of the running, though he desperately tries to make her dump Larry and return to him. Another friend, Richard (Bob Balaban), has heart problems and feels he might not be able to make the trip. And Block’s plans to have his small son, Hilly (Eric Lloyd), see his father honored are thwarted because Hilly’s psychiatrist mom, Joan (Kirstie Alley), refuses to let him go.

Meanwhile, Lucy (Judy Davis), Block’s former sister-in-law, is furious that Block, in his last book, described their clandestine relationship in thinly disguised detail; she turns up at his apartment wielding a gun with suicide, or murder, in mind.

From the very beginning, Allen establishes an edgy, disjointed style to illustrate Block’s fractured way of life. The opening credits are punctuated by repeated shots of a frantic Lucy arriving by taxi at Block’s apartment. Daringly, the offending scene of intimacy between Block and Lucy is then reenacted, but as a “fiction,” taken from the book, with Block surrogate Ken (Richard Benjamin) dallying in the kitchen with his sister-in-law Leslie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) during a family barbecue only to be interrupted, in flagrante, by Leslie’s blind grandma, who misinterprets the sounds she hears.

This raunchy, hilarious scene is a forerunner of more surprisingly explicit hijinx to come; this must be Allen’s bawdiest film since “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,” with an unusually high four-letter word quotient for this writer-director, and some very blue jokes indeed. Some of the latter may make feminists blanch, but they serve to underline the immaturity of Block.

Things get more complicated in another scene from one of Harry’s books involving the Block character, now called Paul Epstein (Stanley Tucci), who marries his shrink, Helen (Demi Moore). All goes well at first, since Helen knows everything about Paul’s personal and sexual quirks and makes allowances for them. But when she becomes a mother, she suddenly embraces extreme Judaism (“You’re like a born-again Christian, except you’re a Jew,” complains Paul). Helen proves to be a combination of Joan and Block’s sister, Doris (Caroline Aaron), who turned to orthodoxy after marrying Burt (Eric Bogosian).

Gradually, Block’s obsessions and demons are revealed, with a less and less flattering view of the character. He sees Larry as, literally, the Devil because he took Fay away from him, yet his treatment of Fay was never on the level. When apparently turned down by all his friends, he gets a colorfully garbed black hooker, Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), to come to the award ceremony with him. At the last moment, they’re joined by Richard, who’s changed his mind, and Hilly, whom Block “kidnaps” from school, sparking Joan’s implacable fury.

Sprinkled through all of this are vignettes culled from Block’s short stories, among them a hilarious episode called “The Actor” in which Robin Williams plays Mel, a movie actor who suddenly goes out of focus — literally. Scene is skillfully conceived and filmed. Also very funny is an episode in which an old woman discovers her husband’s “dark secret.”

Allen successfully juggles all these characters and plot elements through the brisk 96-minute running time, revealing a character who, by his own admission, is “spiritually bankrupt.” Message of the pic is that each individual should accept his or her limitations and get on with living, or, as Richard puts it, “to be alive is to be happy.”

But Allen’s Block is a tormented artist who finds it difficult to function in the real world, a man for whom bringing pleasure to people through his work is hardly enough. It’s a revealing statement, if attributed to Allen himself. Film can be read as the director’s answer to those who wonder how much of the real Woody Allen exists in the characters he plays in his films.

With an almost constant stream of mostly funny one-liners, Block is a typical Allen protagonist yet darker, sadder, more isolated, less mature. Allen is exploring the nature of an entertainer in much the same way that Bergman delved into man’s relationship with God. In addition to the plot structure from “Wild Strawberries,” “Harry” contains a nod to another Bergman classic, “The Seventh Seal.”

In a film filled with great scenes, audiences should come away chuckling over the one in which Davis, excellent as ever, displays curiosity, embarrassment and fury — while trying to keep a perfectly straight face — and then drops to the floor in a faint. Among the higher-profile cast members, Williams isn’t seen in focus at all, Crystal is surprisingly subdued as the caddish Larry, and Moore is dryly amusing as the shrink/wife.

Some may question Allen’s taste in making allusions to such taboo comedy subjects as the Holocaust. For the record, he also makes jokes about the Hollywood establishment, the media and sellers of aluminum siding, among others.

Pic is crisply shot by Carlo DiPalma, interestingly edited by Susan E. Morse (who visually depicts the jagged nature of Block’s life via deliberately intrusive jump cuts) and handsomely designed by Santo Loquasto. There’s the expectedly delightful soundtrack of jazz standards.

Deconstructing Harry

  • Production: A Fine Line Features release of a Jean Doumanian production. Produced by Doumanian. Executive producer, J.E. Beaucaire. Co-producer, Richard Brick. Co-executive producers, Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins, Letty Aronson. Directed, written by Woody Allen
  • Crew: Camera (DuArt color), Carlo DiPalma; editor, Susan E. Morse; production design, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Suzy Benzinger; sound, Les Lazarowitz; assistant director, Richard Patrick; casting, Juliet Taylor. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (opening night), Aug. 26, 1997. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: Doris - Caroline Aaron Harry Block - Woody Allen Joan - Kirstie Alley Richard - Bob Balaban Ken - Richard Benjamin Burt - Eric Bogosian Larry - Billy Crystal Lucy - Judy Davis Cookie - Hazelle Goodman Beth Kramer - Mariel Hemingway Jane - Amy Irving Grace - Julie Kavner Hilly Block - Eric Lloyd Leslie - Julia Louis-Dreyfus Harvey Stern - Toby Maguire Helen - Demi Moore Fay - Elisabeth Shue Paul Epstein - Stanley Tucci Mel - Robin Williams Rosalee - Annette Arnold Professor Clark - Philip Bosco Janet - Stephanie Roth Harry's Father - Gene Saks