NOTE: This review contains one of those words you can’t say on radio. Read at your own risk.
The opening scene of Deconstructing Harry shocked me. Richard Benjamin, looking pretty old, is fucking Julia Louis-Dreyfus, looking way too young for him. The age difference and the lack of romance in their eyes made me think she was doing it for money. After all, their M.O. was definitely giving him more enjoyment than her.
Scream II, 1997, Wes Craven, for another bit of filmic self-reference.
It also bothered me that the scene was played up for comedy. These two people are soullessly fucking, hoping they won’t be caught by their spouses, and in walks blind-as-a-bat grandma. What a wacky situation. It was funny, but not ha-ha funny.
Turns out Benjamin and Louis-Dreyfus are playing characters, not in this movie, but in Harry’s (Woody Allen’s) book. They really are supposed to be “funny” in a deliberately sick, larger-than-life way.
Allen’s films are notorious autobiographical exaggerations. In Deconstructing Harry, he has subjected his life to another round of fictional distillation. Harry’s characters are interpretations of Harry, who is an interpretation of Allen. The residue left after all that filtering is what we see in the first scene. Although it is shocking, it is deliberate and appropriate.
If you can appreciate the distillation of three layers of reference and laugh at the underlying truth, then you will like this movie. If, in spite of the cleverness, you still think it’s a little sick, you may hate the movie.
As for me, I could go either way.
The glue that holds all these characters and meta-characters together is that Harry is being honored at his alma mater and he wants to find a friend who will accompany him. This allows him to interact with the people from his past, most of whom have been portrayed in one of his stories. Enactments of these stories (like the opening scene) are cut into the overarching story of Harry’s trip back to college.
After one or two of his ex-wives decline to join him, Harry pays Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), a prostitute, to accompany him to the ceremony. Richard (Bob Balaban), another friend decides at the last minute to go too, and rounding out the fourth passenger in his Volvo is his son (whom he has to kidnap, since mom won’t let him miss school).
Robert dies on the trip from New York, which is taken in stride. When they arrive at Harry’s college, Richard’s body is taken away and before he can be honored, Harry is arrested for kidnaping and possession (Cookie left her pot in the back seat).
Harry is jailed, left to mull over the fact that his only friends are dead or hired or kidnaped.
Allen seems to be acknowledging that his life, like Harry’s, is full of bungled relationships and missed opportunities. However, this acknowledgment is not an apology, nor is it regret, for in the end, Harry is able to justify his life through the art and the characters that he has created.
Had he been better at relationships, he reasons, his books would have been worth less than this review. Instead, he decides to accept that he’s an asshole, and enjoy his fame and success as a writer.
The ultimate point of Deconstructing Harry is that, for artists, life is hell. If it weren’t, they wouldn’t have any motivation to create beauty. Happy people just don’t make great artists, and great artists are not happy people.
I find this message quite depressing, but I can’t say I disagree. I dipped my toes into the cold water of filmmaking, and decided instead to sit by the pool. I look at the swimmers with envy, and yet I can’t really say I’d like to trade places. Like it or not, I have chosen warm and stable security over fame and big success. I wish I could have it both ways. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen corroborates my fears that it’s not possible.
Technically, this is a very good film. Allen’s long-time editor Susan Morse took some risks that really paid off. The movie is full of jump cuts that not only effectively tighten up some scenes, but also add an appropriate sense of confusion. Often when Harry is looking for the right words, Morse uses a series of short cuts that give the movie the same frustrated manner that Harry has.
The inserted story segments have the fresh hooks and quick morals of good short fiction (like the actor who literally loses his focus, or the man who changes his identity to cheat on his wife, only to find that Death has come for this alter-ego.)
Allen’s filmmaking tone is a little more raw than usual, if that’s possible. For example, his lead character talks more about “fucking” and less about sex, relationships, and lovemaking. But his unique sense of neurotic humor is still evident.
Did I like this movie? No. I hated it. First it repulsed me and then it depressed me.
Was it any good? Yes. By distilling his own life to a smelly, concentrated sludge, Allen really did hit on some human truths. In addition, the lucid, careful control of three layers of reality shows that, as a filmmaker, Allen is very good.
As for a recommendation, I could go either way.