Deconstructing Harry

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Woody Allen

REVIEWED: 01-26-98

Prior to Annie Hall, Woody Allen appeared in his films as a recurring character--the fumbling, nebbishy "Woody Allen" persona, who, like Chaplin's Tramp, stood in for the audience's weakness and secret grace. After Annie Hall, Woody Allen's performances in his films could be divided in two--quirky character parts, and a new nebbishy guy who didn't stand for the audience so much as for Allen himself. Through Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Husbands and Wives, and beyond, the line on Allen has been that, with the exception of bittersweet fantasias like Zelig or The Purple Rose of Cairo, his films have been variations on a single film clef.

Now comes Deconstructing Harry, Allen's response to those who would shelve his films under autobiography. The Harry of the title (played by Allen, of course) is a drunk, whoremonger, misogynist, bigot, profaner, and all-around jerk. He's also a writer who uses his life and the lives of his friends as fodder for his critically acclaimed comic novels. The scenario is as close to Allen's life as anything he has previously attempted, yet the lead character is so wildly unappealing that the viewer can reach one of two conclusions--Allen is in real life an incredibly foul person, or he's out to prove once and for all that he's never been just playing himself in his movies.

Deconstructing Harry is about what art reveals of its creator. The plot is driven by an honorary degree that Harry is to have bestowed upon him by his alma mater. He tries to find someone to go with him, but every friend or ex-girlfriend that he comes across has given up on him; they're all busy getting on with their lives. He ends up going with his son (whom he kidnaps) and a prostitute. On his way to an event praising him for his good-spirited body of work, Harry reflects on his mean-spirited life; he's aided by his own literary creations, which have come to life to taunt him.

The structure and the subject matter of Deconstructing Harry seem to have liberated Allen. Unlike many of his recent films, which revolve around one simple idea or gimmick, Harry rolls out a handful of funny sketches in the form of Harry's stories. The sketches are often quite raunchy--Harry himself swears in at least every sentence, and the jokes in the film are frequently crude. Thanks to the film's rapid editing--which fast-forwards Harry's inarticulate speech--and the whirl of filthy humor, Deconstructing Harry becomes Allen's loosest, least mannered work in over a decade.

It's also among the most pointed. There's a line in Annie Hall about how artists make everything work out OK in art, because it never does in life. Except that Annie Hall does not end perfectly for its characters; in fact, Allen's films rarely do. Even in Deconstructing Harry, in which Allen makes his character a novelist who writes the sort of surrealist social commentary that Allen himself used to crank out, he undercuts the self-serving fantasy by making the writer a miserable crank. Does this represent Allen's view of his life--that he can never be successful as both an artist and a human being?

Does it matter? The film describes what it describes. Perhaps it's time to stop examining Allen's films for insights into the director's life and start analyzing them on their own merits. Deconstructing Harry is a marvelously funny character study about a man who functions best as a creator, rather than a creature of God. It's a spiraling conundrum of a film, one that tears apart a man's life work and finds at the center a contradiction--a productive void.

--Noel Murray

Full Length Reviews
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry

Capsule Reviews
Deconstructing Harry
Deconstructing Harry

Other Films by Woody Allen
Bullets Over Broadway
Celebrity
Everyone Says I Love You
Mighty Aphrodite
Sweet and Lowdown

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