DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) – One of Woody Allen’s bawdiest and best movies

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Most of Woody Allen’s 1990’s movies were so kind and polite, they’re almost anemic. (His musical Everyone Says I Love You was a charming concept, but was the movie’s Groucho Marx number at all necessary?) But with Deconstructing Harry, Allen regained some of his bite and managed to make his funniest movie in years.

Harry is a bit like Allen’s much-reviled Stardust Memories. As in that movie, Allen plays an artist (here, a writer named Harry Block) with a mental block and a predilection for troubled women. There are frequent movies-within-a-movie sprung from the artist’s brain. (My favorite is the movie actor who is literally always out of focus, providing Robin Williams with a perfect cameo.) And much of the story is told in flashback and jump-cuts, to reflect the artist’s fractured state of mind.

But at least in Harry, Allen is as unforgiving of his own character as he is of the others. Harry Block is shown as a swearing boozer, pill-popper, and regular customer of prostitutes. Judging from Allen’s public comments, I would guess he is very little like this in real life. But while the makers of As Good As It Gets have publicly crowed about creating an unsympathetic lead character, Allen has quietly done a far superior job of it.

And Allen’s revitalization has extended to his direction. Allen’s cast have been filled with an ever-growing list of big-name stars recently, but they usually don’t come off very well. Here, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, and Demi Moore, among others, are quite satisfying. (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s cuckolder seems almost an extension of her “Seinfeld” character.)

The world is divided between Woody Allen fans who delight in deconstructing his work, and detractors who have made careers out of Allen-bashing. Deconstructing Harry shows how entertainingly Allen can do the job for both sides.

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