Deconstructing Harry (1997) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for strong language, nudity, and some sexuality
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Elisabeth Shue, Hazelle Goodman, Richard Benjamin, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Bob Balaban, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Caroline Aaron, Eric Bogosian, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Eric Lloyd, Tobey Maguire, Stanley Tucci, Tony Sirico, Jennifer Garner (cameo), Paul Giamatti (cameo)
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Review published January 21, 2007
With Deconstructing Harry, writer-director-star Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You, Mighty Aphrodite) continues to write stories from personal experience, as well as lift themes previously explored in the works of his favorite auteurs, Bergman and Fellini, to craft a unique comedy that only he could make. It's certainly one of his most experimental films, both in tone and execution, as the actors (approximately 85 speaking parts in the film) were only given the specific pages that their scenes appeared in, were not given any rehearsals, and were just told to go with the emotional flow of the material the way they saw fit. The result is somewhat uneven, but interesting, and thanks to Allen's clever writing, often quite insightful.
If you know anything about Allen's films, you'll already be aware that many of them mirror actual events that occur in his life. Relationships, career issues, scandals, and his love of art -- they are all fodder for his fiction. Unfortunately, those that know Allen personally will see more than just Allen within the framework of his films; they also will see themselves. As a result, the real-life people in Allen's life sometimes take umbrage to being used in his writing in such a thinly-veiled fashion, and though the names and specifics may change, they feel a bit violated about being written about, even if indirectly.
Allen stars as bestselling author, Harry Block, who is suffering from writing block of his own when certain people in his life have complained that they are sick of him writing about them, and it is causing problems in their personal lives from those who recognize them in the fictional works. On the cusp of receiving an award for his body of work from his alma mater, Block is visited and revisited by the many characters in his life, both real and their fictional counterparts, pointing out his inadequacies and giving him even more anxiety about his many vices.
While I think that Deconstructing Harry is another ingeniously-conceived film by Allen, I wonder how much enjoyment it will hold for viewers who are largely unfamiliar with his other films and books, and also his personal life. It's not the first film where he thumbs his nose at the critics, detractors, and acquaintances that have dogged him over the years about his work (Stardust Memories is perhaps his most deliberate), but it may be his most incisive, cutting right into the very core of his personal life as an artist and a man. Just as it is difficult for many to distinguish between Allen's fictional yarns and the reality of his personal life that he liberally mines ideas from, so it is in this film, where the characters come to life and interact with him in a way that makes them almost interchangeable with the people that inspired their creation. Different actors and actresses play the basic archetypes at various times in the film, each representing a particular character in a book written by Block. It can be confusing to keep up with the characters at first, but once you realize the basic premise, it does become more readily apparent who is being depicted in each particular scene.
Ironically, even the "real-life" characters of the film just become one more set of fictional characters that have been regurgitated for yet another one of Allen's works. This speaks to a story told within the film about a man who brutally murders his own family and eats them, mirroring the creative process that Block (or Allen) is going through, and the tribulations he is currently facing. He is figuratively doing harm to his family, friends, ex-wives, and associates, using them over and over in his works in a manner that could metaphorically be called cannibalism.
With Deconstructing Harry, Allen is blessed with a very strong cast of celebrities and actors, who deliver quite well in their respective roles. Allen's direction is a bit more stagnant than is his usual custom, perhaps trying to keep with the experimental vibe of the film, with many scenes performed in one take, or if in multiple takes, spliced together in a manner that resembles jump-cuts that appear as if something may have been truncated or excised altogether in the editing phase. It's quite possible that with so many big-name stars in the film on tight schedules, Allen didn't have the normal amount of time to set up scenes and didn't have as much footage to choose from in the editing phase, which caused a more hurried approach to the shoots and amount of film to choose from.
Allen does up the amount of strong language and sexual references in the film well above his usual quotient, which some viewers may find a bit jarring, particularly because it feels more like a forced effort to be more contemporary. It can be argued that Allen intentionally made Harry a vulgar and weak-willed man, mirroring how he was being portrayed in the media, but that he should still be honored as an artist, if not as a human being -- a theme which Harry touches upon himself during a key moment of reflection in the film where he discusses functioning better in art than he does in life. Along with sexual references and some nudity, it may be Allen's strongest R-rated film, and wisely, he ditched this effort to be funny through higher vulgarity after -- it doesn't really suit him.
Deconstructing Harry represents Allen at his most neurotic, which generally translates to his most inspired. While the casual viewer may find it more difficult to relate to than other works by the prolific creator, if you know Allen's body of work well, it is a treat for the mind on his opinions regarding the creative process he undergoes, and the ramifications that speaking from personal experience creates. While it is sloppier and choppier than your typical Allen-directed film, from an ideas standpoint, it is one of his freshest. It is a sharp, funny film about how one man's reality has effected his fiction, and conversely, how his fiction's popularity has affected his reality
©2007 Vince Leo