Midnight in Paris

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(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 2011)

Looking Back

If there’s one primary complaint leveled against the commendably prolific filmmaker Woody Allen’s twenty-first century output thus far, it’s that these films are mostly flimsy and feather-light in comparison to his early, lauded heavyweights. Classics such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors found the artist at his inarguable best: perfectly balancing cynical humor with considerable philosophical and moral depth usually against the backdrop of a city with a personality of its own. He’s had his fans after embarking on what feels like an extended tour of Europe’s iconic cities, but none has even so much as satisfied those beholden to his golden period from the late ‘70s into the ‘80s.

Of this late-career fascination with European cities of old, his charming Midnight in Paris is likely the best of the bunch. Forgoing the shocking cynicism devoid of humor in Match Point and the irritating whimsicality of Vicky Cristina Barcelona – probably his two most lauded films in the current Eurotrip up to this point – Midnight finds Allen engaging in similarly lighter fare, but the sentimentality inherent in its nostalgia-soaked construct is rarely sappy, offset by genuine humor unseen in Allen’s recent work as well as a winsome fantastical premise that recalls his greatest forays into fantasy Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Too, Midnight is best understood – and probably most enjoyed – as the late-career self-reflection that it is. Anyone could have toyed with the intentionally unexplained time traveling contained within, but viewed as yet another exposé on the troubled psyche of its creator, the film packs an even harder emotional punch.

Gil (Owen Wilson) is a discontent Hollywood screenwriter trying his hand at writing a novel. He and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) tag along with her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) on a business trip to Paris. Here Gil romanticizes about this great French city. He finds his inspiration in the rain, on the cobbled streets, in view of historic monuments, and along the Seine. He could live here, he decides, and yet the Paris he envisions as the ultimate inspiration is the Paris of the 1920s – teeming with modernist artistic creativity. His literary and musical idols lived and worked during this time, and all converged upon this great cultural capital of the world creating what are now considered twentieth century masterworks of art. Inez shares none of these sentiments regarding the city and derides his dreams as pure, nostalgic fantasy – and a considerable roadblock to the future of his professional success.

Allen provides Gil a vehicle (literally) for his backward-leaning romanticizing as an old-timey car picks him up one night at precisely midnight and transports him to the past. Gil is treated to a dazzling parade of Lost Generation artists and celebrities at the peak of their careers. He encounters Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and many, many others in typically humorous and clever Allen fashion. (It is Gil who gives Buñuel the idea for The Exterminating Angel, Stein and Hemingway offer opinions on his work, one of Picasso’s real-life paintings is actually of a forgotten mistress of his.) And yet, amidst each of these icons, Gil is most smitten by the lovely Adriana (a rapturous Marion Cotillard) – Picasso’s fictitious mistress.

And so his holiday in Paris goes on like this – by day, writing and mostly avoiding his fiancée and her dubious admiration for a former schoolmate Paul (Michael Sheen) to whom she’s undoubtedly attracted, and by night, stepping back in time to the era for which he most longs to have lived. His interactions with these artists and thinkers give new meaning to the inspiration in his work, and he quickly finds himself rewriting his novel with this wondrous new experience in mind.

The setup is delightful and Allen’s execution, near perfect – with the help of DP Darius Khondji, he paints Paris in its various stages of its lengthy history with an eye-catching beauty. The opening montage of still shots of city life – most reminiscent of the much grander prologue to Manhattan – is a tribute in its own right, and one could easily see Paris as Allen’s favorite stop on this Eurotrip so far. Paris is well-suited for Allen. It’s historically been an international hub of artistic creativity to rival his beloved New York City on the other side of the Atlantic. But, it’s also clear that Allen is merely a tourist here. He shoots Paris as romantics and audiences alike have always envisioned it to be, but anyone who’s been there or lived in lesser shown neighborhoods can attest to the much busier streets and less affluent qualities of city life that are on display here. And yet, this attitude toward Paris is entirely fitting for Midnight in Paris as the film plays more like homage than dissection of the city. Furthermore, it explicitly details the manner in which romantics like Gil do indeed transpose their own perceptions on the city itself.

Ultimately, Allen reveals the flaw in Gil’s (and by proxy, his own) fantasizing of the past. When Adriana takes him to her own golden age – Paris’ Belle Époque at the turn of the last century – Gil understands that this discontent with the present (that Adriana describes as “dull”) will inevitably surface no matter what era he lives in. In what may very well be an admission of his own pining for the glory of yesteryears, Allen suggests that Gil may be missing out on living in the present by constantly looking back. Somewhat surprisingly, Midnight in Paris ends on an atypically positive note for the director. Gil has, like most of Allen’s conflicted protagonists, reached the limits of his tainted view of the world, but he offers him a glimmer of hope nonetheless. Gil may not be able to live as one of the writers of the glorious ‘20s, but he can be comforted in knowing there are others like him in today’s Paris who share in his love for the old.

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Boyhood

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(Dir. Richard Linklater, United States, 2014)

Time Has Told Me

With Boyhood it’s tempting to solely focus on director Richard Linklater’s unprecedented achievement of chronicling one fictitious boy’s journey through adolescence over the course of an actual twelve-year period (and doing so wouldn’t exactly be reductive as this work represents an astounding feat of filmmaking), but the film is fortunately – not to mention unsurprisingly, given Linklater’s past work – much more than its attention-grabbing construction. But, given this striking singularity in narrative fiction, it’s worth devoting a few words on the matter.

Fresh off the ruminative wanderings of Waking Life, Linklater assembled a troupe of actors as either crazy or brilliant as he willing to commit to a twelve-year experiment. I say ‘experiment’ here because while the completed Boyhood is a rare and unusual piece of art in 2014, it must have been even stranger trying to explain what it may or may not become back in 2002 when filming began. The four principal actors came together once a year for a few days at a time to shoot more scenes allowing these two adults and their two children to quite literally grow up onscreen. And, as Linklater couldn’t have predicted what kind of young man newcomer Ellar Coltrane would become, neither a traditional script nor even a basic plot were necessary. In a way, then, time wrote just as much of Boyhood as Linklater did.

In short, the finished product is a triumph of contemporary cinema. The footage Linklater shot over the past twelve years has been thoughtfully and lovingly compiled into one cohesive story of a family as its members struggle through the ups and downs of life. At film’s end, it’s remarkable how decidedly unexceptional young Mason’s life is. Familial drama is no stranger to cinema’s vast history, and most memorable stories hinge on climactic or life-altering events. And, while Mason’s family does experience its fair share of tumultuous moments, none of these is used as a major plot device or final act reveal. Instead, eschewing traditional narration, Linklater allows his story to wander, taking numerous detours that give each year of Mason’s life almost an episodic quality – each like a short story nearly contained within itself.

Over the course of Boyhood’s near three-hour runtime, we become comfortable with these stops along the way. The faces of Mason and his family become familiar as the signs of aging on full display give us the feeling that we’ve known them for some time. And, the sense of this rather ordinary life that Mason leads – almost certainly intentioned by Linklater in the film’s deliberate construction, his decision to keep Mason a fairly normal teenager, and Coltrane’s subtle and deceptively casual performance – helps Boyhood feel all the more relatable. It also makes Boyhood an altogether personal and emotional experience without ever slipping into overt sentimentality or without offering neatly packaged endings for its characters.

This last point is important in understanding why Linklater’s film remains more impressive than merely its “twelve years in the making” tagline. To be sure, Boyhood has a cinematic quality to it – welcome trademarks of its filmmaker are sewn into its fabric. But, its refusal to bow to the norms of filmed familial drama gives it a realistic quality missing in much of mainstream American cinema today. Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr. disavows the notion of becoming the absent father cliché, and even without a typical onscreen revelation, his character does avoid falling victim to these narrative devices and matures into a responsible family man himself. Patricia Arquette’s Olivia receives no dramatic closure as the last time we see her she’s in tears and questioning her own significance while Mason prepares to move to college. It may not be immediately satisfying, but it bolsters the realism of the situation: oftentimes we do part ways with the ones we love without having resolved much at all.

Too, from an aesthetic perspective, Linklater’s decision to forgo title cards to announce the elapsing of time in favor of seamless transitions allows us to get lost in the narrative and rely on our memories of these characters to adjust our frame of mind. (Brilliantly, Linklater helps us out quite a bit littering his film with pop culture reference points – an annoying wake up call to “Oops I Did It Again,” an elaborate Harry Potter book release, Motorola Razrs, an era appropriate soundtrack – that make Boyhood even more nostalgic for those of us who came of age during the early 2000s.) In the first of such transitions, Olivia packs up her two unwilling children and moves them to Houston to start a new life. Their packed car pulls into the parking lot of their new apartment complex, then the scene cuts to a shot of Mason and Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) bursting into their room. Did they just move in or given the room’s put-togetherness, has some time passed? When we see that Mason’s hair looks a bit longer, and Sam has grown a few inches, we realize the latter must be true. And, so, Boyhood unfolds in this way: never announcing its gradual transition through the years, but allowing us to infer change through the physical growth of these characters and through events both implied and spoken.

Furthermore, most of the major events that the characters experience occur off-screen. Weddings, births, divorces, graduations, and break-ups all happen, we are told, but we’re rarely shown. Linklater, it seems, is more concerned with the way in which these events shape his characters than how we might feel experiencing them firsthand. It’s a bold decision; one that risks losing his audience to more readily satisfying or entertaining films, but one that ultimately pays off immeasurably. Yes, Boyhood is an artistically conceived film that winds up achieving relevance without trying with a premise for the history books, but at its core is the wholly relatable, deeply felt, and entirely engaging story of a boy becoming a man. In the end, we don’t rejoice because Mason has accomplished so much or because he overcame so many obstacles, but because we can rest assured that he’s going to be okay. He made it through such a crucial and formative part of his life, and we watched it happen – we experienced it with him. And, for that accomplishment alone, Linklater’s Boyhood already deserves a spot amongst the greats.

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Au Contraire: The Big Short

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(Dir. Adam McKay, United States, 2015)

That’s Edutainment!

As cinema’s vast history has shown, one of the most effective means of conveying messages – no matter how subtle or, conversely, on the nose – to compliant audiences is to couch a scathing critique in comedy. Even as war raged on across Europe and Hitler’s Germany remained a looming threat to democracy in the 1940s, films like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca unapologetically lampooned the ideologies and supporters of the infamous dictator and, in Lubitsch’s case, daringly the man himself. Or, as the uncertainty of a perceived imminent nuclear holocaust plagued those on both sides of the Cold War divide throughout the twentieth century, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove shockingly poked fun at the idea of a room full of just a few men wielding the power to end the world. And, more recently, films as varied as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E have taken on environmental irresponsibility in bitingly satirical fashion. Through the years filmmakers with agendas have found the perfect formula to get their messages across: turning their causes into entertainment.

It should come as no surprise, then, that liberal-minded satirist Adam McKay – probably best known for Anchorman and other occasionally funny, occasionally political shenanigans with Will Ferrell – turned to comedy to take on the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession that left millions of Americans unemployed and unable to pay their mortgages. McKay teams with screenwriter Charles Randolph and a slew of A-list performers – notably without Ferrell – to bring Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book of the same name to the screen. With its timely subject matter, talented cast, and strategic release date, The Big Short appeared in its promotional cycle as textbook Oscar bait. And, while McKay’s film doesn’t do much to disavow that notion – not to mention its inevitable five Oscar nominations – it refreshingly rejects the typical prestige picture mold in favor of something rather unexpected.

For though it hits its obligatory melodramatic and conventional plot-fueled marks, The Big Short actually plays more like a documentary than a traditional narrative fiction film. From Ryan Gosling’s opening monologue – part voiceover, part direct address to the camera – onward, McKay’s film intentionally draws attention to its own farce. Throughout, characters consistently break the fourth wall and even admit when the filmmakers take artistic liberties with the actual events the film is based upon. This welcome self-reflexivity is all too rare in films based on true stories, and at times even recalls Jafar Panahi’s latest (much, much greater film) Taxi as actors in that film confess their performances to other characters who may very well be actors too. And, since McKay is not in the same league as the great Panahi in terms of artistic ambition, it begs the question why he chose this unconventional delivery for his filmic interpretation of the recent economic meltdown.

The film has received praise and criticism for one specific accomplishment that both critics and viewers have agreed upon: the very deliberate dumbing down of the complexities of the events that caused the housing market to crash and the ensuing financial crisis. Gosling’s character comments early on during his scene-setting prelude that if the audience is already confused by his terminology, it’s intentional: people on Wall Street want the American public to think only they can do their job, he asserts. It’s a scathing indictment of the type of people The Big Short lambastes, and it’s still only one of the film’s earliest and tamest. The remainder of McKay’s film is a parade of heartless idiots who are either too dumb to see the impending crash or too rich and insulated to care, or both. McKay’s intentions are clear. Nearly eight years on he’s still (righteously) angry with those responsible for the economic downturn who seem perfectly comfortable with the rest of America paying for their mistakes. The Big Short, then, is his attempt to set the record straight, point fingers in the right direction, and warn an unassuming public of this ever happening again. Furthermore, his aim is clearly to ensure that every single viewer – from the economist to the completely clueless – understands what happened.

His directorial decisions, then, become all the more clear. By allowing his characters to break character and by casting some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, McKay’s nearly begging us to see past this mere reenactment to get to the heart of what his film has to say. He even goes so far as to include three cheeky interludes featuring famous celebrities – Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez – as themselves explaining complicated financial concepts in uncomplicated fashion. Robbie, while taking a bath, teaches us that “subprime” just means “shit,” Bourdain compares collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to unwanted fish parts while cooking, and Gomez teams up with economist Richard Thaler to explain synthetic CDOs while playing blackjack. It’s a clever move, and its purpose is impossible to miss: Americans listen best when their favorite celebs are talking. Within the context of The Big Short, these interludes work, but self-aware condescension is still condescension.

For the most part, McKay keeps up this momentum, and his film is consistently entertaining as it over-explains the issues at its core, but in its final third he unfortunately kowtows to the pressures of Hollywoodization as the story devolves into sentimental melodrama. This is especially true of Steve Carell’s character’s narrative thread (which is too bad since he delivers the film’s best performance) as his growing heart of gold for humanity perfectly aligns with his repressed feelings of loss over his brother’s recent suicide. Too, the film unfortunately commits the same fault as Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air – another recent, hyper-relevant Hollywood take on the recession. Throwing in brief scenes of a misled stripper with five homes and bad loans and a tattooed tough-guy whose landlord isn’t paying the mortgage on the home he rents for his family doesn’t automatically make a movie sympathetic to those most affected by the economy tanking. McKay’s film still follows a group of men who profited (in the billions, I might add) from the market crashing. A heartfelt inner monologue from a reformed Christian Bale doesn’t help much either.

Though its back half diminishes some of the goodwill from its promising opening moments, The Big Short isn’t a complete failure. It certainly does un-complicate a very complicated issue. Thus, as a cautionary tale or as an unlikely big-budget, star-studded essay film, The Big Short is mostly a success. But, it’s at its least convincing as the piece of compelling narrative fiction that it needs to be to win awards at year’s end. It flails awkwardly as McKay attempts to swing between two very different registers, and the film’s at its worst when hitting its obligatory dramatic cues.

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Safe

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(Dir. Todd Haynes, United States, 1995)

Suburban Decay

Do you smell fumes?

Documenting the malaise of American suburbia had been the subject of many a late-twentieth century film (see Blue Velvet for one of the best examples, skip over American Beauty as it ranks as one of the worst), and yet Todd Haynes’ seemingly barely remembered Safe, released in 1995, is still easily one of the most important. Filmed with an eerie detachment that never sympathizes with its central character’s plight, Haynes’ film is a deeply unsettling work rife with symbolism and several intelligible interpretations often making it difficult to completely decipher – a quality I’m sure Haynes relishes. And yet, the fact that this chilling enigma manages to still get under your skin with nary a cheap scare or misplaced thrill deems it worth repeated viewings.

Opening with an ominously scored drive through a homogenous suburban neighborhood after dark, Haynes seems to suggest the following events could have happened anywhere in America. But, as the car pulls into the driveway and our characters emerge, a title marker reveals its specific time and location as San Fernando Valley in 1987, the significance of which can only be felt as the story unfolds revealing its character’s retreat from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and parallels drawn to the spread of AIDS at the height of its crisis in the late ‘80s. We first see Carol White (an impeccable Julianne Moore) close up as she and her husband Greg (Xander Berkeley) engage in lifeless sex. Greg, on top, reaches climax while Carol’s blank stare faces the camera. Even in this first sequence Haynes hints that something is not right with this affluent, self-described homemaker.

Haynes spends much of the first part of Safe introducing us to Carol and her perfectly white middle-class existence – she meets friends for lunch, attends aerobic classes at the fitness center, obsesses over the décor in her home. But, Haynes never allows us in her head. Instead, he mostly utilizes wide shots to captures these early moments of Carol’s daily routine effectively distancing us from a character whose life is virtually meaningless. The pale pinks and creams of Carol’s wardrobe almost blend in with Moore’s fair skin, and when she stands aimlessly in her garden or in her heavily decorated living room, she nearly disappears completely, becoming nothing more than a fixture of her vacant house.

That these visuals – beautifully captured by director of photography Alex Nepomniaschy – convey the soullessness of Carol’s neatly ordered, yet vacuous life in their own right, it comes as somewhat of a surprise when Haynes takes his narrative into even darker territory as this housewife slowly becomes inexplicably ill. At first, a coughing fit while driving on the interstate and a bloody nose while getting a perm both alert Carol to the potentiality of a problem, but after she lapses into asthmatic convulsions at a baby shower, she decides to see a doctor. When he insists that there is nothing physically wrong with her, he refers her to a psychiatrist. Though these episodes do not cease, these medical professionals and her husband still do not believe her.

The significance of these opinions regarding Carol’s physical and mental health belonging to men alludes to the oft-cited notion that suburbia exists as a cage for the women it ensnares (something Haynes explores more extensively in Far From Heaven to less engaging results), but here Haynes doesn’t spend too much time with the idea in favor of pointing to the faults and destructive attitudes present in Carol herself, not toward the institutions that likely encourage them. We see signs of Carol’s self-absorbed nature early on mostly in relation to her Spanish-speaking housemaid Fulvia (Martha Velez) who stands as one of the two or three minorities present in Haynes’ intentionally whitewashed film. Fulvia is present when we witness the first emotional reaction Carol has in response to a wrong-colored sofa delivered to her home. When she speaks with a salesclerk at the furniture store directly, she denies that the original order could have requested black because it doesn’t match anything in their home. It may be too obvious to read Carol’s annoyed explanation as a blatant metaphor for racism and the racially unequal exclusion inherent in suburbia in an otherwise much subtler film, but it could be a helpful hint from Haynes as to where Safe is headed.

Haynes furthers this notion in another scene revolving around Carol’s interaction with Fulvia. After her stepson Rory (Chauncey Leopardi) leaves for school one morning, Carol deliberately interrupts Fulvia conversing with other house staff in the kitchen and childishly asks for a glass of milk. When the maid consents and hands this grown woman her chilled beverage, Carol sits in the center of the frame and gulps down her milk with an earnestness missing in any other activity. Carol’s unwillingness to pour her own glass of milk in favor of being served reveals her own feelings toward Fulvia and others like her who seemingly only belong in this all-white neighborhood as hired help. Given her position as a housemaid, it’s likely Fulvia cannot afford Carol’s lifestyle and lives closer to the center of this Californian urban landscape, thus representing the very type of people the suburbs have been designed to keep out.

As Carol’s illness worsens, she sees a flyer at the health club that reads, “Do you smell fumes?” And, after attending a short informational session on what she learns is called environmental illness, Carol decides she too must suffer from chemical sensitivity in this over-industrialized city. The pieces all seem to fit together for Carol – her coughing attack attributed to car exhaust, her vomiting a result of her husband’s hairspray and cologne – as she immerses herself in the world of extreme health-consciousness. When she learns of a rehabilitation center in the middle of the desert in New Mexico for patients with chemical sensitivities, she convinces her husband she must give it a shot.

The second half of Haynes’ film, then, transports us to this New Age commune-like hermitage masked as a rehabilitation center. The promise of complete healing that the founders of Wrenwood perpetuate keep Carol there despite the discomfort she initially experiences as some of its cultish ways become more apparent. Here the charismatic teacher Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) preaches a reaffirming self-love to combat his patients’ ailments and promotes further seclusion from the outside world so that they may remain safe. During Carol’s stay at Wrenwood, Haynes’ major themes bubble to the surface. Her rapid retreat into isolation coupled with Peter’s teachings encouraging the residents to turn off the news and think positively mirror Carol’s suburban existence before she ever became sick. The gated upper-middle-class home in which she lives effectively separates her from the seemingly terrifying unknown of diversity and lower-class economic status that typically mark the inhabitants of the inner city. From aerobics class to expensive lunches, Carol need never interact with anyone remotely different from her. And, if she ever does feel threatened by the “toxins” of this urban life, she need only cloister herself in the safe haven of her suburban neighborhood.

Despite her self-assurances, Carol (as well as several other residents) does not improve while staying at Wrenwood. In fact, it seems her conditions worsens. Toward the end of the film lesions form across her frail visage, and we never see her without a small tank of oxygen in tow. In constant fear of more exposure to harmful chemicals, Carol requests to move into a tiny, porcelain-lined igloo that her mentor describes as “perfectly safe as long as no sets foot inside.” Haynes ends his film with Carol safely tucked away in her igloo completely isolated from the outside world. Here she believes through self-affirmations and clean air she will finally be healed. The film closes with an as yet unseen close-up of Carol’s sickly face as she stares into the mirror muttering, “I love you” to herself. This illness, in Carol’s mind, stems from a life that exists outside the comfort of her own, and an escape from that reality holds the cure. But, in the end, we see that this intentional solitude that breeds a meaningless existence is the real toxicity eating away at the shell that she’s become. She may feel safe shutting out the rest of the world behind the curtains of her luxurious home, but this false sense of safety will keep her from experiencing a life worth living.

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Deconstructing Harry

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(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1997)

Deconstructing Woody

In his near fifty years as a filmmaker cranking out at least one film per year since 1982, Woody Allen has covered a lot of grim territory – murder, adultery, nihilism, the loss of faith. And, though he’s embraced all-out drama without any comedic silver lining in a few films (especially in recent years), none of his comedies are as bleak or as hard-hitting as Deconstructing Harry. It’s as black as comedies come, and it’s all the more unsettling for it’s structured as a scathing auto-critique for one of Allen’s countless stand-ins. Once again, we find the idiosyncratic director/writer standing in front of a mirror playing the lead character, but this time his typical neurotic tendencies and blatant flaws are injected into a character that’s surprisingly unlikable.

Harry Block is a bitter, aging writer who has burned through at least three marriages, abuses both alcohol and prescription drugs, boasts a particularly foul mouth, and welcomes the company of prostitutes. We meet him as an ex-lover comes bursting into his apartment wielding a gun. She’s enraged that he’s turned their past love affair into his latest novel subsequently leading to her husband to leave her and estranging her sister to whom Harry was married. Lucy (Judy Davis) accuses him of thoughtlessly turning his real-life relationships into juicy stories for his books, and when he slips up and calls her by the name of her character in the book, it’s easy to see why she’s reacted so strongly. From the very beginning, the line between Harry’s pathetic life marked by self-absorption and destructive behavior and the fictional world of his literary work is confusingly blurred.

Fittingly, Allen cleverly structures his story as a string of vignettes switching between samples of Harry’s writing with a cast of different characters and the interactions with the people in his life that these stories are based upon. It all revolves around the film’s primary plot concerning Harry’s former university honoring him for his years of work and Harry attempting to find someone to accompany him. Each episode patches together the life Harry’s lived and the people he’s hurt along the way. But, these tales retold are not so straightforward. In using other actors to play the characters in these “fictional” stories, Allen also draws our attention to the tainted lens through which we’re looking. These retellings are Harry’s version of the stories; and as we see with the dissolution of his marriage to Joan (Kristie Alley), the dubious conversion to devout Judaism of her literary counterpart Helen (Demi Moore) may have been more than just a little exaggerated.

At times it’s painful to watch these exchanges from Harry’s life – whether enacted memories or passages from his books. The man is a wreck, but it’s also difficult to sympathize with him. He’s the sole cause of the destruction that surrounds him, and our only satisfaction comes from knowing that he’s consistently unhappy. With all this relational strife filling the screen, it may be strange to view Deconstructing Harry as a comedy. But, Allen has made a career of finding ways to poke fun at the parts of life others might find inappropriate to laugh at. There’s something darkly humorous about Harry, his “abducted” son, a minor acquaintance (Bob Balaban), and a prostitute (Hazelle Goodman) cheerfully singing along to a familiar tune while cruising down the highway on their way to receive the writer’s award. Or, Joan’s skittish patient (Howard Spiegel) getting more than he bargained for during a therapy session when she violently berates her husband for his latest infidelity while the client lies in wait. Or, even an easier gag like old Grandma (Jane Hoffman) overhearing her granddaughter Leslie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her lover Ken (Richard Benjamin) have sex and mistake it for making cocktails.

Allen is often accused of unmerited solipsism as his dense body of work frequently features dissections of different versions of the same man – namely fictionalized portrayals of himself, though he’s gone out of his way to actively deny any resemblance of his own person to his characters. But, here I wager Allen gets a hall pass, for though Deconstructing Harry is undoubtedly yet another display of a cynical, atheistic formerly Jewish, struggling writer with pervasive trouble with women, it also finds the filmmaker at his most self-aware. There’s no glorifying of Harry Block here, and no plea à la Zelig to be loved. With the widely publicized Mia Farrow scandal behind him, Allen was more than well aware of people’s perception of him, and Harry may get closest to how he might have been feeling.

The line between the world of his books and the world around him becomes even more indecipherable when his created characters start appearing in real life, at first offering insight into the messes he’s caused, and eventually culminating in his own private honoring ceremony behind closed doors where each of these characters gleefully applauds him. At one point, defeated, Harry concludes, “I’m no good at life,” to which his friend Richard replies, “but you write well.” At film’s end, Harry seems to have come to the realization that he cannot function in normal life and can only find happiness (no matter how temporary) in the lives of the people he creates. Allen’s been here before (most notably The Purple Rose of Cairo): when real life provides no desired happiness, it’s easy – and sometimes essential, Allen might argue – to escape to a world, even if fictitious, that can. The film ends with Harry at his typewriter jotting down the film’s central theme: “Writing, in more ways than one, saved his life.” If Deconstructing Harry isn’t autobiographical, then I’d be hard pressed to find something else this raw and honest in the work of such a prolific and talented artist. Allen has fans, but also many, many vocal detractors, and this film is essential in understanding that behind every canvas, novel, or film, an artist is also just a man or a woman.

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