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Mighty Aphrodite

(Woody Allen, USA, 1995)


 


It takes about one minute for the ancient Greek chorus at the start of Woody Allen's new film Mighty Aphrodite to slip from classical verse to a modern, urban, Jewish patter.

This is an old routine for Allen, this slide from solemnity to schtick. He used it frequently in his literary pastiches of the '60s and '70s, but it's still worth a few laughs.

This masked chorus, with its low moans and corny, choreographed gestures, speaks of grand things: hubris, calamity, tragedy. But the story framed by this mythic talk is rather more prosaic. Lenny (Allen), a sportswriter, agrees to adopt a child in order to save his relationship with Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), who is permanently stressed trying to make it big in the artworld.

But then Lenny becomes dangerously curious about the child's real mother, prostitute and porn actor Linda (Mira Sorvino). He begins playing God in ways that alarm the chorus, insinuating himself into Linda's life and trying to match her up with a dumb jock boxer, Kevin (Michael Rapaport). Meanwhile, Amanda is tempted by a smooth gallery owner, Jerry (Peter Weller).

Mighty Aphrodite is a fairly amusing movie, a middling effort for Allen. These days, the affinity between Allen's work and a certain smug situation-comedy found on TV is extremely evident. In fact, this film treads Seinfeld turf: the prime targets of the gags are either the pretentious bourgeoisie (artists and intellectuals), or the drawling, uneducated working classes, whose apartments are stuffed with hideous kitsch objects.

In the middle, as ever, sits Woody, satisfied with his own neuroses and jibes. Most of Allen's movies contrive a frisson whereby his screen persona crosses over into some other social milieu: the world of the young, the poor or the criminal. But it's only a momentary fling; these stories usually deposit Woody back in his original, safe place, mouthing some banal verity about life being such a glorious, whimsical muddle.

In the telemovie Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story (1995), a friend tells Farrow (Patsy Kensit) at the height of her legal battles with Allen: "Incest is a theme that runs through all of Woody's films". This critique may not be quite accurate, but there is certainly something curious bubbling not far under the surface of Mighty Aphrodite.

Given his recent personal history and the sensationalist scrutiny it received in the media, Allen bravely plays with fire these days every time he dramatises the vicissitudes of love and erotic attraction. That Greek chorus provides him with an amusing way of defusing this hot topic. But, all the same, his growing penchant for casting his obviously ageing self alongside much younger women (Sorvino and Carter) is not exactly an edifying spectacle.

However, if there is an argument worth having out in relation to Allen, it does not ultimately concern his personal life, or the moral values expressed in his films. The real scandal is the importance routinely granted to him as a filmmaker. He seems to me to be a very overrated director.

I have always felt that Allen's films lack a certain élan. Watching Mighty Aphrodite I realised the simple reason for this. Allen does not like to shoot a scene from more than one angle. This decision goes hand in hand with a need to stage the scenes in long, unedited takes. This is a demanding style that even the greatest directors (Kenji Mizoguchi or Theo Angelopoulos) find hard to achieve consistently.

Allen, in my opinion, falls foul of his own parti pris in this regard rather too often. Because he denies himself editing possibilities, the rhythm of scenes is often very inert. And if the camera (still or moving) doesn't happen to catch every face or gesture that is significant to the action, then that's just bad luck.

The acting, too, often seems unfocussed in Allen's films. Especially lacking is that ensemble effect which is so crucial to the one-shot style: the blending of the different actors' various energies and rhythms. There is a shocking scene in Shadows and Fog (1992), one of Allen's worst films, that frames John Malkovich, Madonna and Mia Farrow all gabbling at once. It's like watching the messy, head-on collision of three different movies.

I am not surprised to learn that Allen foregoes rehearsal with his actors, preferring to capture the scenes unfussily on the set. A bit more fuss on his part might pay off with more meaning, more dramatic tension – not to mention a few more laughs.

MORE Allen: Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Melinda and Melinda, Small Time Crooks, Sweet and Lowdown

© Adrian Martin February 1996


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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