The Black Magician - A Review of Deconstructing Harry

by David Baldwin

Deconstructing Harry is by far the nastiest, cruelest, most vicious movie Woody Allen has ever made. It is also, not coincidentally, one of his funniest, and easily his best since Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1989. The nineties have not been a great decade for Allen artistically (or commercially for that matter), certainly not nearly as good as either the seventies or the eighties were. The reasons for this drop in quality are not hard to figure out. As a writer, Allen has always been strongly drawn to whimsical or fantastic comic conceits, which have resulted in some absolutely brilliant work (such as Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo). But the supernatural or mythic elements in his more recent films, like Alice and Mighty Aphrodite, have been both flatly executed and poorly integrated into the stories that contain them.

Another disturbing problem has been the increasingly retro feel of Allen's films, whether the narratives actually take place in the past, like Bullets Over Broadway, or are set (ostensibly) in the present, like Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You, both of which were really homages to Hollywood films of the thirties and forties. Lastly, Allen's relentless drive to release at least one movie every year, even in periods when his inspiration has burned low -- as well as the distractions of his not-so-private life -- may well have had an adverse effect on his creative judgment. All of his movies of the past seven years include memorably funny and charming moments. But none of these have been satisfying, fully-achieved works of comic art, like Annie Hall or Manhattan or Hannah or Zelig or Purple Rose or Crimes -- or even like the early cartoon comedies, such as Sleeper and Love and Death.

I'm not sure that Deconstructing Harry is really satisfying, either: its implications may be too deeply unsettling for the film to be truly enjoyable. Some time ago, it occurred to me that Allen was capable of making a great, dark movie about an amoral man who lies and cheats his way through life, using and abusing women and getting away with it -- but I never dreamed that Woody himself could (or would) ever play such a character. In the new movie, Harry Block, the famous writer, is indeed creatively blocked, but not for lack of an interesting personal life. Whenever he's not chasing beautiful women much younger than himself, he's busy running away from his bitter, vindictive ex-wives and mistresses (one of whom calls him The Black Magician).

Their hostility isn't hard to understand. Harry Block is not just neurotic, but pathologically selfish and cruel, incapable of fidelity, loyalty, or even simple affection for anyone. He has cheated on all his many wives, and actively enjoys exploiting and degrading women. His most successful relationships have been with the prostitutes with whom he has consorted since his youth. (A typical example of Block's gallantry, post-fellatio: "They should put your lips in the Smithsonian." ) His saving grace -- the gift that has literally saved his life -- is his imagination, but lately he's been using it only to manipulate and bully the women who love him or used to love him. Harry's a total bastard: he possesses talent and wit, but is utterly devoid of morality, or even basic manners (he has a very, very foul mouth).

On the most basic level, of course, the movie obviously feeds off of what people know, or think they know, about Woody's personal life. He's playing a game of one-upmanship with his public persona, trying to top the unpleasant revelations with which we're already familiar, by providing us with ever more appalling and outrageous fantasies. He seems to be saying to his fans: "You think I'm bad? I'll show you just how awful a person I can be!" And Allen doesn't stop with his own widely-publicized foibles; he even appropriates those of other celebrities. The character of one of Harry's hookers, a likable black woman named Cookie (the first major black character in an Allen film), seems to have been inspired by Hugh Grant's great and good friend, Divine Brown. Many professional moralists will doubtless regard this film as straight autobiography. I seriously doubt if Allen in real life is remotely as dreadful as Harry Block, yet there's a definite undertone of perverse boasting here, as if Woody wants everyone to believe that he really is the worst person in the world. (When Harry asks Cookie if she can think of anyone worse than he, the only name she comes up with is Hitler.)

On another, deeper level, the movie is an amazingly dense, subtle and sophisticated reworking of themes, characters, conceits and images from Woody's previous work. Practically every scene contains an echo from some other Allen film. Yet such is his immense imaginative power that one never feels that he's rehashing the past: most of the jokes and dramatic situations would work even for a viewer completely unfamiliar with his other movies.

The film is held together by the frailest of plot devices. Block is returning to a college which he had once attended -- and which had expelled him -- to be honored for his creative work. The award ceremony is inconveniently scheduled for the same day that his ex-girlfriend, Fay (the very lovely Elisabeth Shue), whom he still wants, is to be married to his best friend, Larry (Billy Crystal). To compound his problem, Harry can't find anyone to go with him to the ceremony -- most of his old friends are now his enemies. So he enlists the hooker Cookie, a very sick pal (Bob Balaban) and his young son, whom he kidnaps, to accompany him.

The scenes showing Harry and Fay's courtship are very interesting, because they totally lack the romantic aura of similar scenes in (for example) Annie Hall or Manhattan. They're deliberately distasteful. It's as if Allen agreed with those critics (like me) who have said he's far too old to play the romantic hero opposite babes like Julia Roberts and Mira Sorvino. He makes the audience feel very awkward and unhappy about this couple, a feeling compounded by the fact that Fay is clearly attracted to Block out of a fan's uncritical adoration; she mistakes the very flawed man for the great soul who exists only in Block's books. It's a creepy Beauty and the Beast situation -- you just want Fay to get away from this guy as soon as possible.

The narrative continually alternates scenes from Harry Block's real life with the fantasies he creates out of them, which he then turns into books and stories, seldom bothering to disguise the real people who inspired them. This well-worn device enables Allen to combine his two great, contradictory talents: for bringing to life his most fantastic, off-the-wall comic ideas, and for writing sharp, satirical, psychologically acute dialogue. One surreal scene, reminiscent of Zelig, involves a story Block wrote about an actor, played by Robin Williams, who suddenly goes out of focus. There's nothing wrong with the camera that's filming him, he has literally become a blurry, indistinct image. ("I'm soft!" cries Williams, whose looks of embarrassment and dismay are alone worth the price of admission to this movie.) He goes home to his wife and children, hoping a good night's rest will restore his sharpness, but in the morning he's even blurrier than before. His doctor can't cure his condition; all he can do is give corrective lenses to the actor's family, so that they can at least see him properly.

The bitter tone of this comedy reaches its peak (nadir?) in a hilarious flashback showing the breakup of Harry and one of his wives, an extremely neurotic psychiatrist named Joan (Kirstie Alley). Joan has just found out that Harry has been cheating on her with one of her female patients, but though she literally wants to kill him, Harry is utterly incapable of remorse and continually twists the conversation around to justify himself. Meanwhile, a very meek and nervous patient arrives for therapy, but Joan keeps interrupting his session to resume her obscenity-filled quarrel with Harry, all the while downing vast quantities of Prozac. Allen and Alley display amazing comic chemistry in this scene. Even more impressively, Ms. Alley never loses sight of the terrible suffering and sense of betrayal the character feels. Here is a woman whose world is literally falling apart because of her inhuman husband, yet we can't stop laughing at her, because her behavior is so absurdly unprofessional. This sequence is one of Allen's great classic set pieces.

It goes without saying that Allen has written many priceless comic lines; hostility brings out the best in his acrid brand of humor. Here is Harry putting down his hostile brother-in-law: "You're the exact opposite of a paranoid -- you labor under the insane delusion that people actually like you." Or his philosophical observation to the sick friend: 'The most beautiful words in the English language are not "I love you," but "It's benign."' Or Block's rhetorical question to his psychiatrist, wondering if he himself is a sex maniac: "I mean, does the President dream of having sex with every woman he meets?... Okay, that's a bad example..." But the best lines are the ones that don't seem funny at all out of context, but are absolutely hilarious when Allen flawlessly delivers them. Quite apart from his skills as a filmmaker, Woody remains a great, great comedian.

Deconstructing Harry has perhaps the biggest cast of any Allen movie to date, and many of the performances are excellent. Particularly worthy of mention are Ms. Shue, Judy Davis as Block's homicidal ex-mistress, Billy Crystal as Larry (and The Devil), Eric Bogosian as the brother-in-law, Hazelle Goodman as Cookie and Caroline Aaron as Harry's unadmiring sister. Most astoundingly, he gets a fine comic performance from stiff, cold, humorless Demi Moore as, of all things, a fanatically religious Jewish wife! (Allen's great casting director, Juliet Taylor, has performed her usual miracles again.) The camera work, particularly the trick photography, is first-rate.

So the question arises: why did this film make me feel so uncomfortable? I suppose it's partly because, in making the movie, our hero has in effect put a sign around his neck saying "Kick Me" -- it will confirm all his critics' worst suspicions about him. More importantly, Deconstructing Harry is relentlessly misanthropic: Harry and almost all his women are depicted as narcissistic and self-destructive neurotics, psychological and moral basket cases. (Fay and Cookie are practically the only mature adult characters.) But Woody's world has always been so elite and circumscribed that his caustic revelations hardly seem a valid vision of humanity. Harry Block may descend into hell (by elevator), but do we really deserve to join him there?