Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.18: Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry/Celebrity

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, 1997’s Deconstructing Harry and 1998’s Celebrity.
Deconstructing Harry Grade: 10 (D)
It had to happen. We had it too good. It just had to happen some time. From 1969 to 1994, Woody Allen reigned as the premier comic filmmaker of his time, cranking out as many masterpieces as any director from his generation (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives), not to mention other sterling films (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, Take the Money and Run, Stardust Memories) and amusing diversions (Radio Days, Alice, Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery). Sure, there was the occasional misfire- Bergman knock-offs like A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Another Woman and questionable experiments like Shadows and Fog, but all in all Allen had one of the most distinguished filmographies of any filmmaker alive. Then, after his ugly break-up and custody battle with Mia Farrow, Allen’s filmography got nasty. 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite seemed like a low-point and an uncharacteristically mean-spirited dud for Allen at the time. It turned out it was only a warm-up for the odious Deconstructing Harry, a film so colossally hateful it makes one wonder whether this Woody Allen fellow was anything special to begin with.
Harry Block (Allen) is a writer with a penchant for putting his personal life into his novels, much to the chagrin of his former friends and lovers. Harry’s ex-flame Lucy (Judy Davis), for example, becomes a character in Harry’s book (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who sleeps with the Harry-surrogate (Richard Benjamin) behind her sister’s back. Harry’s ex-wife Joan (Kirstie Alley) becomes a psychiatrist who fell in love with her patient (Stanley Tucci as another Allen surrogate) only to become less pleasant (to put it charitably) after she had their son. Harry is a booze-addled misanthrope who sees prostitutes on a regular basis. The only person he “cares” about is his most recent girlfriend, Fay (Elisabeth Shue), who left him for his friend Larry (Billy Crystal). Harry is being honored by a university and plans to take his child and Fay along; when he can’t get his kid from Joan, he kidnaps him, and since Fay’s wedding is the same day, he instead brings along his latest prostitute acquaintance Cookie (Hazelle Goodman).
The film essentially brings the autobiographical elements/ceremony honor storyline from Allen’s earlier Stardust Memories, itself an homage to Fellini’s 8 ½ and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Allen has his own Fellini-esque grotesques here, mainly the women in Harry’s life. Allen had previously hinted at his recent, problematic view of women in Mighty Aphrodite, but Deconstructing Harry brings them on in full force. Davis, Alley, Moore, Louis-Dreyfus, and others are all horrible, shrieking, castrating shrews bent on making Harry’s life miserable. It’s telling that after Moore/Alley have Harry’s child they become unbearable- now they actually want something, which Allen loathes, become religious, which Allen loathes, and stop putting up with his shit. It’s hardly his fault, though. When Alley learns that Harry had slept with one of her patients, the scene turns into an unpleasant scream-fest where she can’t focus on her new patient and keep things professional. She has to go into the other room and screech at Harry. Davis plays the same kind of high-strung woman she did in Husbands and Wives, only in this case her rejection has made her crazy: she takes a gun to Harry’s house and nearly kills him.
What’s worse is that Harry/Allen’s toxic worldview is rarely, if ever, cast in a negative light. Harry calls Davis a “meshugana cunt” and Mariel Hemingway a “tight-assed, busybody cunt”. This is supposed to be funny. The only women in Harry’s life who aren’t horrible shrews are hookers who are just happy to service Harry (there’s far too many fellatio references for comfort here), and they’ve got problems with drugs. Even Shue is nothing more than a doting sexpot for Harry teach; it’s the same uncomfortable teacher-pupil relationship from older, better films, only now the characters aren’t so well defined, so a pair-up of Allen and Shue (30 year age difference again) looks absolutely absurd.
It isn’t as if the film’s smugness and bile is limited solely to women, however. Allen’s slams towards Judaism went from good-natured ribbing to all-out hatred in Deconstructing Harry: aside from Alley/Moore’s embrace of religion leading to the end of their relationship, there’s Harry’s sister (Caroline Aaron) and brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian) as super-religious Jews who slam Harry for Anti-Semitism and have no reason whatsoever.
But what about the stories? To give Deconstructing Harry credit, the filmmaking is at least far more passionate than anything he had done since Husbands and Wives, and the Philip Roth-style stories are sometimes clever: Robin Williams appears as a Harry-surrogate actor who literally goes out of focus; another story shows Harry himself going to hell to challenge the Devil (Billy Crystal’s Larry character) to give him back his woman, claiming that he’s far worse a person than the Devil is.  “Clever” rarely bleeds over to “funny”, however, and for all of Deconstructing Harry’s passion, it’s in service of a miserable, misogynistic protagonist whose self-deprecation late in the film is forced. We’re supposed to care about a person who spouts out hateful, reductive viewpoints and then realizes that he can only function in art rather than life. No dice, Woody.
Celebrity Grade: 11 (D)
Honestly, Celebrity is a worse film than Deconstructing Harry. It’s equally smug but less clever than Deconstructing Harry, and it spouts the same misogynistic, misanthropic worldview. If my personal reaction to Celebrity was marginally less venomous than my reaction to Deconstructing Harry, it’s likely because 1. I had already spent most of my anger on the former film, and 2. Celebrity is too much of a colossal failure at what it’s trying to do to get angry about.
Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is a sleazy journalist and failed writer who has left his English teacher wife Robin (Judy Davis). Lee’s story follows him as he mingles with bratty star Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vapid supermodel (Charlize Theron), and an oversexed actress (Melanie Griffith) and swings back and forth between relationships with beautiful women (Famke Janssen, Winona Ryder). Robin, meanwhile, meets TV-producer Tony (Joe Mantegna), gets a makeover, and becomes a successful television reporter.
Clearly Allen wasn’t satisfied with his smug, unfunny Fellini rip-off Deconstructing Harry and instead felt compelled to rip-off Fellini again, this time the Italian director’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita, with Branagh as a Woody Allen surrogate instead of Marcello Mastroianni. Branagh’s career as an actor has veered back and forth between prestigious highs (Henry V and other Shakespeare films) to abysmal lows (Frankenstein), but never was he worse than he is in Celebrity. John Cusack’s Allen surrogate had enough of Cusack to be more than an impression. Branagh literally does a terrible, mannered Woody Allen impression, mimicking Allen’s every gesture, tic, and stutter to embarrassing degrees. The performance wears out its welcome ten minutes in, and the film is nearly two hours long. That Branagh is impersonating the smuggest side of Allen only makes it worse.
Celebrity shows Allen the writer-director as a bitter, angry old man fueled by hatred of women yet again. Every female character in the film is either a vapid, self-centered sexpot (Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith)or an awful shrew (Davis and Janssen after Branagh dumps them). When Davis and Branagh split-up, Davis is the one who takes it personally and shrieks all the way through; that her story shows her becoming a satisfied reporter for stupid television makes it worse. When Branagh thoughtlessly dumps Janssen, she takes his only copy of his novel and dumps it into the ocean. When Branagh interviews Griffith, she refuses to sleep with him…but has no problem giving him a blow-job. Another unfunny bit of oral sex comedy comes when a prostitute teaches Davis how to successfully fellate by demonstrating with a banana…and nearly choking on it. Winona Ryder has the particularly thankless task of being an unattainable object desire first and an unfaithful, sexpot shrew next. And honestly, why are any of these women with the schlubby, neurotic Branagh (older than most of them by at least ten years)? Guess mannered Woodyisms, condescension, and neuroses is attractive.
Woody spreads the hate around however with the most tired, facile observations about modern popular culture around. Theron is stupid and believes in New Age crap (we saw that more successfully in Husbands and Wives). Michael Lerner is a plastic surgeon with questionable ethics (his name is Dr. Lupus, for Christ’s sake). There’s a Jerry Springer-style show where Klan members and Jews meet backstage and laugh together. Leonardo DiCaprio provides a sole bright spot as a teen idol who uses women and treats people badly (this was shortly after the release of Titanic), but the only bit of successful self-parody is in his performance rather than the script, which makes the same ugly observations about the human condition over and over again until it exhausts any creative energy.
Allen sometimes can’t even bother to write new jokes for the characters- Theron refers to herself as “polymorphously perverse” (a line from Annie Hall), and references to rusty brown water (Manhattan) are made. Sven Nykvist’s photography clearly ties to ape both La Dolce Vita and Manhattan, but it only adds to Allen’s pretentious writing and directing (what’s worse, this was Nykvist’s final film). Misogyny, misanthropy, smugness, hate, and self-cannibalization. What’s not to love?

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