Sunday, February 19, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.17: Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite/Everyone Says I Love You

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite and 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You.

Mighty Aphrodite Grade: 32 (C-)
Upon its initial release, Mighty Aphrodite didn’t have the toxic reception that Woody Allen’s late-90s films are known for. The film received mixed reviews, to be sure, but it wasn’t until on further reflection on late-period Woody Allen that the film bears serious warning signs that something was rotten in Woody-land. There were more hateful films around the corner, to be sure, but through its classism, condescension, misanthropy, and misogyny, Mighty Aphrodite manages to be plenty hateful in its own right.
Lenny Weinrib (Allen)is married to the career-minded Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). Amanda wants  a child, but she does not want to let pregnancy affect her job. After his initial reluctance, Lenny agrees to adopt a baby boy, whom they name Max. Years later, Max shows signs of remarkable intelligence, and Lenny wants to know whose genes Max inherited. Lenny tracks down Max’s mother Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a dumb but happy-go-lucky prostitute and part-time porn star. Lenny is appalled, and he befriends Linda in order to get her to go into a more legitimate profession and get her act together. All together now: yech…
Mighty Aphrodite has exactly two inspired elements. The first is Allen’s decision to include a Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) to comment on the action of the film like they might in a comedic Greek play; Lenny, being a Woody Allen character, can of course interact with the chorus. The second inspired element is Sorvino’s Oscar-winning supporting performance as Linda. Dire as the material is, badly as the script often treats her character, Sorvino tackles each line with bubbly glee and gives the character emotional depth that a lesser performer would no doubt have failed at. It’s a shame that Sorvino’s career didn’t take off after her Oscar win (although anyone who argues she’s better than Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility can go fly a kite); she’s a talented actress, and she makes the film watchable.
Barely watchable, that is. Mighty Aphrodite is a beginner’s course in all the ways Allen would go wrong in the late-90s (Master’s Courses: Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity). Allen has always had a habit of casting himself alongside infinitely more attractive actresses throughout his career, but at least Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow were reasonably close to his age (Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan wasn’t, but the characters there were so well written that their relationship still seemed clear and believable). Helena Bonham Carter is thirty years younger than Allen, and while it’s not as ridiculous as some of Allen’s later movie romances, it’s still fairly ridiculous. More ridiculous: Sorvino, a few years younger than Carter, sleeping with Allen’s character for free for comfort. Right…
It gets worse: Allen’s treatment of humanity, particularly women, is downright ugly here. Sorvino is a crude, low-class, unintelligent hooker; Allen sets her up with the even dimmer Kevin (Michael Rapaport), an onion-farmer/boxer who wants an “old fashioned woman”. Helena Bonham Carter is essentially doing a Mia Farrow impression (Allen considered casting Farrow before his agent told him he was nuts), and the role is clearly modeled after Farrow in the ugliest way. After the two adopt a child, the character’s career-mindedness takes over, the two have unsatisfying sex, and the character denigrates everything Allen does. She cheats on him with her musician-friend Jerry (Peter “Robocop” Weller, who yes, is really in this movie). She becomes one of late-period Allen’s shrill, castrating shrews, an uncharitable and depressing role Allen threw at too many actresses in recent years.
Even the film’s virtues are “virtues” with several asterisks. The Greek chorus is an inventive idea, but it doesn’t really work. It’s mostly distracting, broad, and unfunny. There’s an argument to be made that the combination of a Greek chorus and crude humor (Sorvino’s babblings about her sex work) are in keeping with classic Greek comedies, but the argument would be far more convincing if the film were funny. Instead, Allen looks tired and out-of-place, his one-liners aren’t very good, and the characters are little more than stereotypes. Even Sorvino’s character is mostly watchable because of what Sorvino brings to the table. The script treats the character as a cheap joke more often than a real human being, and the film’s happy ending (Sorvino is married and has a child, Carter and Allen get back together) feels completely disingenuous given was has preceded. All in all, it’s a pretty hateful misfire from a bitter old man, although it’s a masterpiece compared to some of Allen’s other late works.
Everyone Says I Love You Grade: 68 (B)
Allen’s next film, 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You, is a whole new beast for the director: Allen’s very first (and probably last) musical. The film does not feature original songs, but rather old-fashioned songs from musicals of the 1920s and 1930s, some of which have become standards (“Makin’ Whoopee”). Allen seems like an odd fit for a musical, but the film is a pleasant surprise that distinguishes itself from Allen’s uglier late-period works.
The film follows a large family in Manhattan, Paris, and Venice. Holden Spence (Edward Norton) is in love with Skylar Dandridge (Drew Barrymore) and plans to marry her. Skylar’s parents, Bob (Alan Alda) and Steffi (Goldie Hawn) are deeply in love and raise Skylar and their various other children: Bob’s  daughters Lane and Laura (Gaby Hoffman and Natalie Portman) and his young Republican son Scott (Lukas Haas); and Steffi’s daughter D.J. (Natasha Lyonne),who falls in love at the drop of a hat. Steffi and Bob are still close friends with Steffi’s ex-husband (and D.J’s father) Joe (Allen). Joe and D.J. travel to Venice, where Joe falls for Von (Julia Roberts…keep the derisive laughter to yourself for now), who, coincidentally, is one of psychiatrist Steffi’s patients. D.J. had spied on Steffi’s sessions with Von, and she uses the information to help Joe woo her. Meanwhile, Steffi and Bob want to show they believe in penal system reform and take in recently released inmate Charles (Tim Roth), who seduces Skylar and draws her away from her true love Holden.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: Everyone Says I Love You’s plot is pretty thin gruel, and it often plays like a bunch of scenes strung together more than a proper film. Allen decaying comedic talent shows in the flimsy script, which frankly isn’t particularly funny. The biggest reoccurring joke is young Republican Haas’ clashes with his democratic parents, a gag that ran out of steam years before after the sitcom Family Ties exhausted it; that it turns out Haas’ Republican leanings have been the result of a brain blockage isn’t funny either. Allen’s pairing of himself next to Julia Roberts (again, thirty year age difference) makes his Helena Bonham Carter marriage in Mighty Aphrodite seem believable by comparison (even his former marriage to Hawn’s character is a bit of a stretch). Furthermore, his relationship with Roberts, age difference aside, is the kind of stuff that plays in bad romantic-comedies; when you stop to think about it, it’s kind of creepy and unsavory.
That said, it’s a musical, and when it comes to musicals (particularly the old ones Allen loved), the songs are what counts. The songs aren’t use to support the story (there isn’t really a story, honestly), but instead are set-pieces. What makes the songs particularly charming is that Allen has actors using their natural, untrained voices rather than belt big show-stopping numbers (Barrymore is the exception, as she claims she couldn’t sing at all). The results are sloppy, but endearingly so, and whenever the movie stops talking and starts singing, it becomes a big, silly, fun piece of fluff. The best bits: Edward Norton’s wonderful rendition of “My Baby Just Cares for Me”; Alan Alda’s tender “Looking At You”; Tim Roth’s low-key “If I Had You”; Goldie Hawn’s wistful version of “I’m Through With Love”; and a French version of “Hooray For Captain Spaulding” from the Marx Bros. film Animal Crackers, just because. As far as light entertainment goes, Everyone Says I Love You is even lighter than Manhattan Murder Mystery, and its flaws are greater. But in its best moments, it’s one of the best late-period Woody Allen films.

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