(Dir. Woody Allen, United States, 1997)
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.