Reconstructing Woody

He's mean, he's nasty, he's hilarious--and finally, Allen's back

This is the bad side of Allen's existential freedom: the dizzying willingness to play at wickedness that so enlivens this movie. Yes, the devil always gets the best lines, but here Harry gets to outtalk the devil himself. Allen the filmmaker is still not completely able to resist the temptation to have Allen the character one-up others less clever than he. No one ever is. This--along with Deconstructing Harry's uncertain overlap with the real Woody Allen's life--reminds me of the late works of one of Allen's heroes, Charles Chaplin. In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a wife killer who gets away with it (almost)--a coldly brilliant illustration of the filmmaker's core misogyny. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen plays an all-around heel who gets away with everything and always will.

One hopes that Harry is purely the product of Allen's imagination. (There are ways--as in what his critics call "Jewish self-hatred," the overt sexuality in his writing, and in his recent highly public breakup with Claire Bloom--that Philip Roth seems a more obvious model for Harry Block than Allen himself.) It's an imagination that has, however, opted out of the social world that the rest of us inhabit; like Harry, Woody Allen has written his own social contract and made us like it.

I'm not at all concerned here with Allen's private sins, if any. Rather, I'm struck by his chilly isolation from the rest of the world, the blinkered view of our shared community revealed in film after film. After years of ignoring the black community Allen finally gives a large part to an African-American in this movie--she plays a whore. Everyone else, as always in Allen's films, is rich, privileged, and white as a snail's belly. As a social being, Harry sins not in hiring prostitutes but by treating them as rented meat; not in cheating on his lovers but in humiliating them before the community in print. I'm not sure that Allen thinks this way, but the filmmaker gives us no sense that he recognizes that Block is a scoundrel in those ways as well as the more obvious and colorful ones. It's not apparent from Deconstructing Harry that Allen, isolated genius millionaire celebrity that he is, ever will.

Deconstructing Harry.
Directed and written by Woody Allen. Starring Allen, Judy Davis, Billy Crystal, and Elisabeth Shue. Opens Thursday.

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