Deconstructing Harry

Dec 24, 1997 at 12:00 am

What makes Woody run? What turns Woody on? We assume that the answers to these questions are to be found, like intriguing proverbs, in the more than two dozen cinematic fortune cookies directed by Woody Allen since the mid-'60s. Allen's most successful comedies have often combined confessional farce and hilarious self-deflation, with himself as the neurotic butt of the jokes.

After the public-private debacle of the Mia wars, Woody has seemed to be missing in action, particularly as a comic filmmaker. Mighty Aphrodite was a sign of life, a squirming on screen that owed a bunch of its success to the radiantly funny Mira Sorvino. But the self-revelations which we think we saw in that work -- sexual obsessions turned painful and embarrassing, an interest in prostitutes, an egocentricity gone awry -- seemed to confirm what we'd been fearing: that Woody had turned into a dirty old man.

So here comes Deconstructing Harry, his new comedy-as-all-star-revue, promising much in the way of cameos, thespian power, sex appeal and (dare we think it?) true comedy. The "deconstructing" of the title has nothing explicitly to do with French critic Jacques Derrida, although the possibility is intriguing.

Instead, Woody takes apart his main character, a self-absorbed novelist, in brilliant analytical fashion. In scene after scene, he makes us ask, "Is this event happening in the pathetic hero's writing, his mind, his life or all three together?" thereby focusing on the constant interchange between fantasies and personality, public and private thoughts, conscious and unconscious motivation. Sound like Woody's old buddy Freud? You bet.

But Harry is also the funniest Woody Allen film in a decade, the return to form that we'd given up on. With jokes that are raunchy as hell, unapologetically misanthropic, misogynistic and laugh-out-loud funny (one unbelievable early scene is the acting out of a shaggy dog story about onions), this film could only have been made by a dirty old man who's given up being defensive -- whose wisdom, wit and filmic sense have all ripened to the point of a delirious perfection, like the Marx Brothers or Richard Pryor in their prime.

Allen has always gotten great comic performances out of his actresses. In Harry , he makes terrific use of Kirstie Alley, Demi Moore and Elizabeth Shue. But Judy Davis as a rejected lover and Hazelle Goodman as a prostitute take shining control of the action.

Woody Allen fans, take heed! The prodigal son has returned courageously, though he's old enough to be a granddad!

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].