In the 1980 Woody Allen film Stardust Memories, a Martian descends upon the troubled hero Sandy Bates. Sandy is a movie director in crisis, full of doubts about everything from his creative output to the existence of God to the meaning of life.
"If nothing lasts," he asks in frustration, "why am I bothering to make films?"
"We like your films," the Martian replies. "Particularly the early, funny ones."
The Martian couldn't have been more right if he were talking about Allen's own films during that period (including Stardust Memories). In a relatively short span, Allen's principal idiom of expression went from sarcastic parodies to meandering, uncertain exorcisms of esoteric anxieties. After years of recognition as the most original comic voice in film since Preston Sturges, his later efforts were a disappointing second act--whiny and self-involved, centered on topics too obscure, even petty, to be of much interest to the general public.
Often, though, that distinctive glow of his style shone through, so over the years it became apparent that if you wanted to enjoy Allen's films at all, you'd simply have to accept that his moods run in wide-arc cycles (from hilarious comedies to dense, Bergmanesque dramas). To fully appreciate Woody, you must be willing to sort through his occasional petulance and malaise to arrive at the sublime moments where insight and humor converge, and you are reminded exactly of why he has frequently been such a magical director. If you don't have the stamina to suffer through his failures, you don't have what it takes to be a true devotee and are probably better off ignoring him altogether.
For those who have remained loyal through the highs and lows, Allen's newest film, Mighty Aphrodite, proves to be the pot of gold at the end of a weird, twisting, colorful rainbow, a vindication of those false cues and blind alleys that have distracted him in the past. Though not one of his greatest artistic achievements, Mighty Aphrodite confirms what many of us had begun to doubt about Woody: that he can still make us laugh.
The plot seems uncomfortably similar to Allen's highly publicized peccadillos. Sportswriter Lenny Weinrib (Allen) and his wife, art gallery director Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), adopt a baby boy from an anonymous unwed mother. The child is well-adjusted and normal, but as he grows up, Lenny is driven to learn about his birth mother. He eventually tracks her down: Linda (Mira Sorvino), a perky and engaging young porn actress-call girl who goes by the "professional" name Judy Cum. At the same time that Lenny's fascination with Linda's background increases--and as his interest in her grows, first paternally, later sexually--Amanda wrestles over whether to have an affair with her sleazy boss (Peter Weller).
While the bizarre corollaries to Allen's real life initially threaten the film's entertainment value, they eventually take a back seat to what really propels it: intoxicatingly absurd situations with great dialogue and precisely drawn characters to match. Allen has taken what could have been a simple burlesque and cranked up the volume to thunderous levels, redefining his own comedic standards in terms of his personal scandal to produce a bracing and unique comic creation.
Mighty Aphrodite contains the gutsiest narrative device Allen has employed since he played a talking sperm in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask--the main characters' decisions are observed and critiqued by a sardonic, wry Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham). The chorus serves as a daring return to the farcical elements that formed the spine of his early works. Fifteen years after the fact, Allen has finally taken the Martian's advice: he's gone back to his roots and made a genuinely funny film.
The chorus, though, isn't used just as a silly gimmick, but as a bold and sneaky means for Woody to respond to the unwelcome analyses concerning his private life. As the chorus displays the characteristics of abrasive, gossipy pundits of the modern-day, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate its exposition about Lenny, Linda, and Amanda from the commentaries on Woody's own notorious indiscretions. Watching the film's closing credits, in which the chorus performs an upbeat song and dance, you sense Woody's having a ball pitching the last blow, making pert little asses out of those who would criticize his happiness.
There was a time when it seemed Allen might never be this light and whimsical again, that he would be forever trapped in the fog of repetitive and progressively dull films. With Mighty Aphrodite, Allen officially enters what could be considered the fourth identifiable period in his artistic development. His first period of outrageous comedies (Sleeper, Bananas, Love and Death) was followed by his dour dramas--sometimes successful (Interiors), sometimes unsuccessful (Another Woman, September).
Then his third stage--that of the hopeless romantic--seemed like it would never leave. Bittersweet endings distinguished his comedies from the 1980s and through the early '90s: Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors. (His last pre-scandal film, Shadows and Fog, remains his most artistically derivative and least entertaining work to date.) It took Husbands & Wives--his final picture with Farrow--to suggest that Allen's outlook was changing; no longer the hopeless romantic, he has become something still more astonishing: a hopeful one.
Implementing the same guarded but sunny outlook as his two most recent pictures (Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway), Mighty Aphrodite breaks from the bluesy comedy-dramas in an especially remarkable way: it rewrites Allen's personal history to ensure a happy ending. It seems as though he isn't contented to stick to what random chance has to offer, and so has crafted a movie that improves upon life. That may be the shrewdest tactic he's taken in a while--acknowledging that the primacy of the creative process is not its capacity to imitate life, but to perfect it.
Unfortunately, Allen still remains straitjacketed by some of his more rigid stylistic choices: a musical score comprising classic standards, bland opening titles, and increasingly static camerawork. (There's no particular reason why the movie is possessed of a series of extremely long takes--entire single-shot scenes that go on for four to seven minutes--other than to see if it can be done.) Allen may be living proof that a foolish consistency can be the hobgoblin of little minds. On the other hand, Mighty Aphrodite contains two other staples of Allen films: revelatory performances from largely unknown or underrated thespians (Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, Jennifer Tilly in Bullets), and the against-type casting of well-known actors in supporting parts.
The remarkable new discovery that emerges from Aphrodite is Mira Sorvino. Sorvino's last role of any size was as Rob Morrow's wife in Quiz Show, but her work there did not prefigure the complexity with which she plays the dimwitted but sweet-natured Linda. Her performance has the consistency and precision of a Swiss watch, a thing of perfect motion and impossibly exact timing. In the same way that Judy Holliday did it 45 years ago, Sorvino elevates the stereotype of the dumb blonde to a sublime new level.
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Bonham Carter also stands out; although she almost disappears after the first 20 minutes, she shows herself able to break free of the bustle-wearing Victorian heroines she has portrayed in A Room With a View, Howard's End, and Frankenstein. While constrained by Allen's reworking of history (Amanda is portrayed as damnable and weak for her indiscretion, while Lenny is the savior of Linda and wellspring of a winning genetic lineage), Bonham Carter brings an urbane carriage to the part.
Mighty Aphrodite isn't nearly as emotionally elaborate as some of Allen's other films; although he incorporates aspects of contemporary demons (urban neuroses, artistic crises, emotional turmoil), he keeps it all airy and brisk, never lingering too long on a single theme, as he has done in some of his more infuriating recent pictures. Even his recurring theme, the dichotomy of competing obsessions (in Bullets Over Broadway, it was art vs. commerce) gets only cursory treatment here, as Lenny debates whether to stay with Amanda or go with Linda; it doesn't form the basis of the movie.
In fact, every time Allen begins to harp on a subject, there's Sorvino to liven things up: wandering around her obscenely decorated (but pleasantly girlish) apartment, flirting with a punch-drunk young boxer (Michael Rappaport), or bringing poignancy to a discussion of the child she gave up for adoption. Linda is one of the great characters in Allen's repertoire, and the qualities inherent in her revive a mix of components frequently missing from Woody's movies: unbridled humor sweetened with a light dollop of pathos.
Mighty Aphrodite. Miramax. Woody Allen, Helena Bonham Carter, Mira Sorvino. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Opens November 3.