In a 1997 interview about Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen said “it’s about a nasty, shallow, superficial, sexually obsessed writer, so of course everyone’s going to think it’s about me.” His weary sarcasm proved prescient: people did think it was about him. It’s hard not to, as this is a movie that captures and exaggerates many of the worst things people have long thought about Allen. Woody Allen has never liked people treating his movies as autobiographical, but maybe he should consider encouraging it. In this case, pretending it really is about him makes it much more interesting and entertaining.
Deconstructing Harry has a lot in common with Stardust Memories. Both center on an acclaimed artist anxious about an upcoming ceremony in his honor, but more importantly, both have a confessional feel, and both have a protagonist whose career resembles Allen’s. Both Deconstructing’s Harry Block and Stardust’s Sandy Bates are a combination of autobiographical and fictional, and it’s unclear where that line is drawn. Sandy, and even more so Harry, demonstrate eyebrow-raising behavior that makes you very curious: is Woody Allen really like that?
My opinion of Stardust Memories has improved immeasurably since I first reviewed it. Many of its images stick with me, many of its jokes still make me laugh, and, most of all, I admire its audacity and fearlessness. I was excited for Deconstructing Harry, but quickly disappointed as I got into it. It’s darker, fouler and possibly more personal than Stardust, but lacks its wit and beauty. There’s indisputably a fresh look at Allen’s psyche buried somewhere within, but as a movie, Deconstructing Harry is resigned and pointlessly misanthropic. Had it been made by someone I didn’t have a vested interest in, I would probably have forgotten it moments after it ended.
The movie opens with novelist Harry Block (Woody Allen) being shouted at and threatened by his former lover Lucy. Lucy is played by Judy Davis, who seems to be revisiting her character from Husbands and Wives, minus the traces of warmth. This scene sets a precedent for the movie — Allen spends huge amounts of time being shouted at by shrill, histrionic women. This opening one is the most dramatic, though, as Lucy not only shouts, but pulls out a gun and actually starts shooting at him.
It also sets a precedent for dialogue that makes Glengarry Glen Ross sound like The Little Mermaid. Allen has perhaps been inspired by the ‘90s phenomenon of the Mamet Dammit, although he achieves neither shock nor authenticity — hearing him prattle on about cunts and motherfuckers is just sort of embarrassing. After starting his career with 20+ PG movies, I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to talk this way and not have it sound forced and awkward. In Deconstructing Harry, his dirty talk just comes across as a desperate plea for renewed relevance.
The raw dialogue is reminiscent of Husbands and Wives, and so is the movie’s editing. There’s no shaky-cam or documentary-style interviews, but Deconstructing Harry revisits Husbands’ jump-cutting to obnoxious effect. Scenes cut mid-sentence, or even mid-word, for no discernible reason. It seems suspiciously like a lazy way of transitioning.
Anyway, the reason Lucy is mad is because, first of all, Allen left her for a younger women, but more recently, he published a novel which loosely, transparently “fictionalizes” their affair, and paints her in what she considers to be a negative light. This, of course, is a common theme in Allen’s films. Way back in Annie Hall, Alvy turned his idealized affair with Annie into a play. In Hannah and her Sisters, Hannah was devastated to see her sister Holly’s script, which made her look cold and distant.
Deconstructing Harry gets the most mileage out of this conflict — almost everyone in Harry’s life is furious with him for the way he’s written about them. Jane, Harry’s sister, and Harry’s two ex-wives all complain that he’s created “fictional” characters that are thinly veiled versions of themselves, and all are depicted with contempt.
Harry’s fictional characters actually appear on-screen, sometimes acting out Harry’s novels, sometimes appearing in the real world — sort of like Tom Baxter in The Purple Rose of Cairo, except this time only their creator, Harry Block, can see them.
Woody Allen’s ‘90s comedies have been enjoyable, but there’s a “gimmick of the week” trend that’s beginning to emerge. Each year, Allen infuses an otherwise straightforward movie with a new gimmick — Mighty Aphrodite had its Greek chorus, Everyone Says I Love You had its musical numbers, and Deconstructing Harry has its crossover characters.
Unlike Sandy Bates’ films, which remain mostly mysterious, we actually get a pretty good look at a lot of Harry’s novels. Many of them bear an uncanny resemblance to stories the real Woody Allen has come up with. In one, a much-younger version of Harry (portrayed by Tobey Maguire) takes up residence in his hospitalized friend’s bachelor pad in order to conduct romantic affairs without being caught by his wife. This plan backfires when Death comes calling but takes his intended target’s new apartment occupant by mistake.
This, of course, is familiar from Love and Death, not to mention Allen’s one-act play Death.
Speaking of familiarity, this movie has a soundtrack that could be a greatest hits collection of Allen’s past soundtracks. “Night On Bald Mountain” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me” make return appearances (the former was used in a similar context in Stardust Memories) and Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” is repurposed for the umpteenth time. Woody Allen might benefit from a new set of records.
Another one of Harry’s stories involves an actor who is literally out of focus. It doesn’t really go anywhere, but it does extend Allen’s apparent love of visually obscuring celebrities. In Alice he made Alec Baldwin invisible for most of his role and semi-transparent for the rest of it, then cast the most famous person in the world (Madonna) in Shadows and Fog, gave her two lines, and shot her entirely in dim light. Now he gets Robin Williams, one of the biggest movie stars of the ‘90s, and puts him in soft focus for the entirety of his brief appearance.
Harry also has a story about Hell, with a devil played by Billy Crystal. The trailer astutely boils this scene down to its best lines — the rest of it goes on for too long, and is built mostly around predictable jokes about critics and insurance salesmen. It does feature impressive set design though. The Hell of Deconstructing Harry is incredibly elaborate and majestic. With its air conditioning, cocktails, hot tubs and abundance of naked women, it actually looks like a pretty fun place.
Back in the real world, Harry is being honored by Adea University, but he has no one to take with him to the ceremony. He wants to take his son, but the boy’s mother, Harry’s ex-wife, won’t allow it. She’s played by Kirstie Alley, who spends the duration of her performance shrieking profanity. Remember Meryl Streep’s sublime, eloquent anger in Manhattan? That’s now been reduced to Rebecca from Cheers screeching “fuck you, motherfucker” over and over.
As if to deliberately remind us of better days, Deconstructing Harry has a scene in which Allen talks desperately to his ex-wife as she angrily storms away on the street, and it’s almost identical to a scene in Manhattan. In both situations they’re even talking about the same things. Allen’s character wants to see their son, but his ex-wife won’t let him, and one of them is mad about the other one having written a book about their personal lives.
Speaking of Manhattan, Mariel Hemingway returns. The teenage girl who broke all our hearts as Tracey now plays Harry’s son’s teacher who — guess what! — spends all her time screaming at Allen. Her character gets described as “an aggressive, tight-assed, busy-body cunt.”
In the end, Harry kidnaps his own son and heads up to the ceremony with him, his friend Richard (Bob Balaban), and a hooker named Cookie (Hazelle Goodman). Cookie is the biggest role a black person has ever had in a Woody Allen movie, and she’s also the most likable woman in Deconstructing Harry. Not bad for a dope-smoking prostitute.
On the way up to the campus, Richard dies from a heart attack, Cookie gets arrested for drug possession, and Harry’s ceremony is cancelled. Before that, though, Harry drops in on his sister (Caroline Aaron) and her Orthodox husband (Eric Bogosian). They complain about the way he portrays Jewish characters in his books, and accuse him of being an anti-Semitic Semite. He does little to disagree.
While all of this is happening, Allen pops pills, drinks, whines, and details a sordid history of mistreatment and infidelity. He cheats on all of his wives with not only hookers, but his wives’ sisters, patients, and friends. Guilt and remorse are not feelings Harry is familiar with. He has the makings of an enjoyable anti-hero, but lacks the brilliance, charm or wit to pull it off.
We’re clearly supposed to like Harry, or at least feel sorry for him, but why? The glimpses we get of Harry’s work make it look frivolous and inconsequential, and Harry is not nearly as funny as, say, Alvy Singer. Allen reportedly offered the part of Harry to a variety of other actors, including Elliot Gould and Dennis Hopper — either of whom could have brought the devil-may-care charm that Harry needs, but Allen-as-actor lacks.
Allen’s famous self-loathing has crept into most of his movies, but this is a rare instance of him being too easy on himself. This movie ends with Harry coming to a “meaningful” self-realization — that he can’t function in life, but he can function in art. All of his characters gather around and tell him that even if he has a hard time in life, at least he’s created this art that’s moved and enriched people.
This ending doesn’t work for me because, first of all, “dysfunctional” is too mild of a way to describe Harry. Worse than that, it expects us to just accept that Harry’s work is indelible, life-changing stuff. If Harry is a brilliant artist, the onus is on Allen-as-writer to show us that; instead he shows us a guy who writes schlocky retellings of his love life and goofy stories about the devil having air conditioning.
The movie’s tidy ending reveals a deeper problem: there’s nothing to redeem Deconstructing Harry’s unending ugliness. The anger and unfiltered rawness of Stardust Memories and Husbands and Wives was in service of something more meaningful — bold insight and shocking humor that wouldn’t have been possible in tamer films. But Deconstructing Harry subjects us to 100 minutes of unpleasant people, icky sex talk, ugly gender politics, and obnoxious editing for what, exactly? A cutesy ending and a handful of lame jokes?
Yet, for die-hard Allen completionists, this movie is still essential. Harry Block is a fascinating new addition to the Woody Allen alter-ego pantheon. The way he’s written and portrayed is meticulous, and he emerges as the moral inverse of Allen’s nice guys like Danny Rose. All of the negative aspects of Allen’s characters over the years — the righteousness, the self-pity, the misogynistic womanizing, the misanthropic cynicism — are taken and exaggerated to a not-quite-comic degree.
Deconstructing Harry is not a boring movie, but it’s rarely a funny or insightful one either. At one point, Harry’s girlfriend Fay (Elisabeth Shue) tells him that he’s fascinating, but he has no soul. The same is true of this movie.
- “The most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you,’ but ‘It’s benign.’”
- [about Cookie]
“She has a PhD, you know.”
“Well, I’m not sure how she did on her written, but I bet she did great on her oral.”
- “I always keep hooker money around, you know, ‘cause I once paid by check years ago and the IRS killed me.”
- “Between air-conditioning and the Pope, I’ll take air-conditioning.”
- “May God strike me dead if I’m lying.”
“You’re an atheist, Harry!”
“Hey, we’re alone in the universe, you’re going to blame that on me, too?”
- “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”
- “Do you even care about the holocaust, or do you think it never happened?”
“Not only do I know that we lost 6 million, but the scary thing is that records are made to be broken.”
- “You’re the opposite of a paranoid. I think you go around with the insane delusion that people like you.”
- In addition to Elliot Gould and Dennis Hopper, the part of Harry Block was also offered to Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Albert Brooks. All of them were either unavailable or wanted too much money. With two weeks left until shooting, Allen gave up and decided to just play the part himself.
- A lot of reviews speculate that Harry Block was based on Philip Roth, although Allen has never mentioned that. He’s presumably familiar with him, however, as Roth’s wife, Claire Bloom, has acted in three Woody Allen movies.
- The protagonist’s name might be a pun based around the fact that he suffers from writer’s block, or it may be a reference to The Seventh Seal, in which Max Von Sydow played a character named Antonius Block.
- The plot point of Harry going on a road trip to attend a ceremony in his honor is inspired by another Bergman film, Wild Strawberries, which has a protagonist that does the same thing.
- Woody Allen initially conceived this movie as a way of off-loading miscellaneous half-finished stories and ideas that lacked the depth to be full movies — for example, the out-of-focus man, Death coming for the wrong person, etc.
- Deconstructing Harry was the opening movie at the Venice Film Festival.
- Caroline Aaron plays Allen’s sister in this movie as well as in Crimes and Misdemeanors.
- This is Woody Allen’s last movie with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who he’d worked with on nearly all of his movies since Hannah and her Sisters (1986).
- Demi Moore, Jennifer Garner, Amy Irving, Stanley Tucci and Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus all have small roles as Harry’s characters.
- Julie Kavner, who has been in more Woody Allen movies than anyone other than Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton, makes the last of her seven appearances (to date).
- Paul Giamatti has a small role and one line, as he did in Mighty Aphrodite.
- In an episode of Family Guy, a pile of unwanted DVDs plead to be purchased (Peter purchases Road House instead) — Deconstructing Harry was one of them.
- Woody Allen’s first movie with New Line Cinema.
- This movie got Woody Allen yet another Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.