Mighty Aphrodite

Woody Allen's '90s winning streak continues with another successful comedy.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1995

For any of you considering entering the exciting, prestigious world of Woody Allen blogging, here’s a free piece of advice: watch all the movies first, then go back and write about them. In the early days, I was influenced by popular notions, snarky asides and half-read reviews — most of which left me under the assumption that Allen’s late-period films were reductive, lazy, and offensive. I think this skewed my perspective and gave me an unfairly dismissive attitude towards the works of Allen’s senior years.

Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You (which I also just watched), have collectively surprised me. Despite themes of murder and prostitution, the movies are decidedly lightweight, but Allen combines the thoughtful dialogue of his late-’80s films with the comic flair of his early-’70s movies. Based on plot descriptions, I thought the ‘90s were going to be fairly schizophrenic, but so far, all the movies are remarkably similar in tone and style. This is an era far more enjoyable, if less significant, than his preceding block of serious films — it lacks the intellectual highs, but also the dreary lows.

Excluding the made-for-TV museum piece Don’t Drink the Water, this is Allen’s third straight tight, breezy comedy with a quietly dark heart. Manhattan Murder Mystery and Bullets Over Broadway featured people getting killed — in Bullets’s case, someone was even killed for laughs, by one of the film’s more likable characters. Mighty Aphrodite doesn’t kill anyone, but it has prostitutes, pimps, and a “state-of-the-art fellatrix” with a screen name of Judy Cum.

Who knew Allen had this seediness in him? In his 30s and 40s he was an old-fashioned milquetoast making PG movies with only the most timid of sexual references. Now that he’s married, settled down, and in his 60s, he’s turned into that dirty old uncle who keeps telling awkward jokes about blowjobs.

In Mighty Aphrodite, the fellatrix in question is Linda Ash aka Leslie St. James aka Judy Cum, played my Mira Sorvino (daughter of Paul). She’s a career hooker and sometime-actress, appearing in such films as The Enchanted Pussy and Beaver Patrol.

Mira Sorvino in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite

Linda/Judy enters the story after protagonist Lenny Weintraub (Woody Allen) seeks out the birth mother of his adopted son. Lenny is so impressed by his son’s brightness and ingenuity, he assumes that his genetic parents must be geniuses. He’s a little shocked, then, to discover that his son’s mother is a beautiful but dim-witted sex-trade worker and his father “could’ve been any of a hundred guys.”

Mira Sorvino and Woody Allen in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
“It keeps perfect time!”

In 1990, Julia Roberts famously sanitized the world of prostitution in Pretty Woman. This offended the mercurial, recently-deceased Ken Russell, who made an X-rated “real world” companion piece titled Whore. Released 5 years later, Mighty Aphrodite sort of splits the difference. It’s got explicit dialogue and some brief looks at Linda’s porn movies, but it’s all in service of light comedy.

This makes some of Linda’s scenes a little uncomfortable. There’s no real depth or sadness to her character — mostly, we’re just meant to laugh at how stupid and slutty she is, which sometimes comes across as cruel, or at least unnecessarily mean-spirited. There’s also a condescending tone to the scenes between Linda and Kevin (Michael Rapaport), her meat-head boyfriend. After two decades of enshrinement amongst New York’s cultural elite, Allen now looks at the lower classes with a sort of detached, anthropological amusement.

Mira Sorvino and Michael Rapaport in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
“So, you’re pretty.”
“You’re not so bad yourself. I bet you’re hung like a horse.”
“Yeah, I could ride a horse.”

Of course, as with Pretty Woman, it helps that it’s not very realistic. Sorvino exaggerates her character enough that she feels more like a comic device, and less like a sympathetic target of unwarranted ridicule. She talks in an absurd, squeaky voice that’s obviously fake. She makes Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway sound like a deadpan intellectual. The voice was apparently a source of contention between Allen and Sorvino, with Allen even threatening to re-film all of her scenes with a different actress (September-style). In the end, Sorvino prevailed, and it was definitely for the better.

Allen and Sorvino actually make a surprisingly deft comic team — the physical contrast alone is pretty funny. Allen as a writer/director has grown increasingly bawdy, but as an actor he’s still the timid nerd we all know and love. Linda’s frank sexuality and Lenny’s nervous deflections reminded me of What’s New Pussycat and Allen’s terrified conversations with showgirls.

Mira Sorvino and Woody Allen in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
“You’re cute. I’m always attracted to losers”
“Losers? You think I’m a loser?”
“Yeah, you’ve got no confidence. It’s sweet, I like that in a man. I can’t stand those johns who come in and throw down a couple of hundred and whip out a big dick and wave it all over the joint.”
“I wouldn’t do that, even if I wanted to...”

While all this is occurring, a (literal) Greek chorus provides commentary, giving us a helpful reminder that we shouldn’t be taking any of it too seriously. From the ruins of an ancient amphitheater, a group of masked, robed denizens provide musical accompaniment and narration. Notable Greek figures such as Cassandra and Tiresias drop by from time to time to offer insights as well. The chorus is led by an unrecognizable F. Murray Abraham, who is clearly (and infectiously) having a good time.

The Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite
F. Murray Abraham in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite

In the diverse canon of Woody Allen narrative gimmicks, this one falls somewhere in the middle. It never quite outstays its welcome, although I also felt like it didn’t fully live up to its potential. It’s essentially one joke — orchestral, bombastic interpretations of modern and often mundane problems — repeated over and over. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t laugh at least once each time they showed up. My personal favorite was probably their unexpected appearance at a park on a date between Kevin and Linda, or perhaps their orchestral cry to Zeus that results only in a Answering Machine Message From Heaven.

Michael Rappaport, Mira Sorvino and the Greek chorus in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
The Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite
“Oh Zeus, most potent of Gods! We cry out to thee.”
“Hi, this is Zeus, I’m not home right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

Love and Death was filled with in-depth references to Russian literature, making the movie increasingly funny the more you knew. Mighty Aphrodite makes only shallow references — as long as you know, in a general sense, who Oedipus, Cassandra and Zeus are, nothing’s likely to go over your head.

Getting back to the story, Lenny never actually tells Linda about his son, although he feels an emotional connection to her and tries to get her on track to a better life. Hence, he sets her up with Kevin, a well-meaning but equally dim-witted boxer/farmer. Meanwhile, Lenny’s marriage to the driven, career-oriented Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) is falling apart, as she takes up an affair with a real-estate agent played by Peter Weller. Despite being married to the protagonist, Amanda doesn’t have much depth or screen-time. But, if you’ve ever wanted to see Robocop make out with Marla Singer, well, that happens.

Peter Weller and Helena Bonham Carter in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”

Amanda eventually leaves Lenny, and Kevin dumps Linda after finding out she’s not a hairdresser like she said. Then, Lenny and Linda, at their lowest, have a night of unlikely passion. Linda ends up pregnant, but doesn’t tell Lenny, and so they each go on raising the other’s child, with neither of them knowing the truth.

Mira Sorvino and Woody Allen in a scene from Mighty Aphrodite
Amazingly, this screenshot is not from a fantasy/dream sequence.

Despite this ironic twist, the ending of the film is actually quite happy, which kind of throws a wrench in the whole “Greek theatre” parallel (although it was admittedly a pretty loose parallel to begin with). Lenny and Amanda reunite, and Linda finds a nice husband and becomes a successful hairdresser. Perhaps in acknowledgment of his half-hearted attempt at telling a Greek parable, the film’s final scene is an appropriately non-sequitur rendition of When You’re Smiling.

The Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite

Interestingly, Sorvino and Bonham Carter are both more than 30 years younger than Allen. But, the very first observation I made on this blog was that Allen has an eerily ageless quality to him, and that stance has become increasingly validated. He honestly doesn’t look that much older than he did in Annie Hall. If you see Woody Allen and Helena Bonhan Carter walking down the street together, you’d never guess there was such a wide gap. Carter and Allen make sense together just as long as you don’t look up their birthdays on IMDb. And Mighty Aphrodite is a great comedy, just try not to think too much about it.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “Are you a coward?”
    “Only in actuality.”
  • “He was a serial rapist. He spent his whole life in jail, but if he had gone straight, he might have been very good in math.”
  • “Achilles only had an Achilles heel, I have an entire Achilles body.”

Fun Facts

  • Woody Allen came up with the idea for the story when he was reflecting on the origins of his adopted daughter (Dylan).
  • Allen had originally planned to use the Greek chorus idea in a movie version of his short story Retribution, which was about a man falling in love with his mother. He later decided against adapting Retribution, and used it here, when he noticed that the story was starting to resemble Greek theatre.
  • The scenes at the amphitheater were shot in Sicily, and they’re the first things Woody Allen has shot outside of America’s Eastern seaboard since Love and Death, 20 years earlier.
  • Mira Sorvino auditioned for the part in New York and didn’t get it. Allen then went to London to audition some British actresses, and Sorvino showed up again, this time in full costume, and got the part on her second try.
  • Mira Sorvino won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, both of which Dianne Wiest had won the year before for Bullets Over Broadway.
  • Woody Allen was nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” for the 12th time, which officially made him the most Oscar-nominated screenwriter of all time.
  • Allen wrote Helena Bonham Carter’s role with Mia Farrow in mind.
  • Some famous actors in small roles: Olympia Dukakis as the clerk at the adoption center, Paul Giamatti as one of Lenny’s co-workers, Jack Warden as Tiresias (the blind seer),
  • Sopranos actors Tony Sirico and Paul Herman both have small parts. This is actually the second time they’ve appeared (Sirico was in Bullets Over Broadway and Herman was in New York Stories), meaning I should’ve included them in this.
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