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With: Woody Allen, Richard Benjamin, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Bob Balaban, Elizabeth Shue, Demi Moore, Robin Williams, Eric Bogosian, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Stanley Tucci, Hazelle Goodman, Gene Saks
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and some sexuality
Running Time: 96
Date: 08/26/1997

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Real Woody

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Woody Allen mystery is and always has been: how much of the real guy is in that onscreen hero that we all know and love? Woody always insists in interviews that his onscreen persona is nowhere near his real life persona. But we know that he hates to leave New York, he never goes to the Oscars, even when he wins, he is dating a much younger woman, etc. In Allen's new film, Deconstructing Harry, his character, Harry Block, a writer, says "it's a thinly disguised version of me. I don't even think I'm going to disguise him any more. It's me."

That's on the one hand. On the other hand, Deconstructing Harry, is a thinly disguised remake of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, which has a professor on the road to a benefit to receive an award for his lifetime achievement. Along the way, he meets several people, runs into some old ones, and mulls over his life. Harry Block is also receiving an award, and, at the same time, he is forced to re-evaluate his life.

Harry Block is the most screwed-up of any Woody Allen character, ever. In fact, when historians assess his career, Deconstructing Harry may pop up as his most personal film (with the possible exception of Stardust Memories). Block is a sad, scrawny little man. He hates the world, is chronically depressed, pops pills with liquor, hires whores, enjoys blow jobs, and lies and berates everyone he loves. His only happiness is in his writing, where he can control his characters and situations. Every once in a while, an ex-wife or girlfriend or relative will show up and scream passionate bloody murder at him. (Judy Davis and Kirstie Alley are in two particularly amazing scenes -- you can feel their rage.)

There is not much plot. Between scenes of Harry getting chewed out, we see re-creations of his stories, all of which are hilarious, and, of course, reveal the secret side of Harry. Robin Williams stars in one such story that is pure genius, and Wiliams doesn't even have to do anything. Another amazing scene has Woody in Hell trying to retrieve his "stolen" girlfriend. Soon, fictional characters pop up in his real life to give him guidance (some of this is reminiscent of Annie Hall).

Deconstructing Harry is a brilliant film, and it is Allen reaching farther to do more than usual. It is, however, a slightly unpleasant and shocking film. It's hard to see Allen as a dirty old man, using words that would make sailors blush, kissing Elizabeth Shue, slurring drunkenly, and just sad. This time Allen's character is hard to sympathize with. Allen is a very funny actor, but it takes an actor with real skill to touch the audience with such a sad character, like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, (a film which surely inspired Allen) or Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking.

Woody Allen has been one of my heroes for years. His films are intelligent and fresh, and safe and comfortable. He is a master of visual humor and verbal humor, not to mention his great dramatic moments in films like Hannah and Her Sisters. Deconstructing Harry made me laugh a lot, and it forced me to go a little farther to the edge of the envelope, but the trip left me a little uneasy, as if it were done in misdirected anger and frustration instead of enthusiasm or desire.

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