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Deconstructing Harry

(Woody Allen, US, 1997)


 


Deconstructing Harry has the weirdest and most disconcerting opening of any Woody Allen film.

Breaking up the credits is a volley of shots of Judy Davis exiting from a cab – shots that are out of linear order and repeated several times over, like in some avant-garde movie from many decades ago.

Since this prologue has almost no meaningful relation to anything that follows it, one can only assume that Allen is demonstrating for us his rather woolly understanding of deconstruction.

In a broader sense, the acclaimed novelist Harry (Allen) is feeling a little deconstructed because his life is in a perpetual state of chaos and irresolution. His sentimental history is littered with broken relationships, treacherous friends, and a son he barely knows. To mess things up even further, Harry has made his experience the basis for his literary art – taking occasional liberties, such as condensing several real-life characters into one – which serves only to provoke further crisis.

Allen has tackled the confusion between art and life before, in the curious Stardust Memories (1980). However, in its choice of a writer to reflect and refract such chaos, Deconstructing Harry most vividly recalls Alain Resnais's masterpiece Providence (1977) – a film with less jokes, but a more profound and penetrating wit.

Like Resnais, Allen structures his story on the constant comparison between the reality of events and characters, and the fictional ways in which Harry has chosen to portray them.

Although it offers a few tremendous laughs, this is one of Allen's laziest films as writer-director-star. It takes us on a whirlwind tour through the stations of its anti-hero's miserable life – and simultaneously through a review of the various phases of Allen's often clumsy stabs at movie art.

A man named Death shows up on the doorstep, as in Allen's earliest films. A motley crew of characters goes on a road movie adventure of self-discovery, as in Broadway Danny Rose (1984). There are self-reflexive gags about the film medium itself (recalling Annie Hall, 1977) and introspective fantasy sequences that cap Allen's tiresome, recurrent homages to Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

Deconstructing Harry is a film of bits and pieces, and some of the bits work well – especially a delightful cameo by Robin Williams as a soft (literally out-of-focus) man. Allen is a terrible director of actors – he seemingly leaves them to fend for themselves – and this results a wild disparity of performance level: a droll turn by Bob Balaban, for instance, collides with an embarrassing display of histrionics from Judy Davis.

The novelty element that gives this film a dubious distinction in the context of Allen's career is its disconcerting degree of nastiness and tastelessness, particularly in regards to sex. The film dwells, with a troubling intensity, on the vagaries of sexual gratification for men – with a peculiar emphasis on fellatio.

It seems that, for Allen's self-obsessed, solipsistic alter egos, the scarily deconstructed modern world – with its castrating, feminist shrews heading up a small army of threatening, non-WASP strangers – can only be compensated for by a virtually masturbatory withdrawal into oneself. Which reminds me: wasn't there a young, female student in Husbands and Wives (1992) writing an essay titled "Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction"?

MORE Allen: Bullets Over Broadway, Melinda and Melinda, Mighty Aphrodite, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown

© Adrian Martin April 1998


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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