Deconstructing Harry is one of Allen’s harshest films. Prostitution, kidnapping, infidelity, betrayal. Ironically, this is his first film after his deal with the cutting edge Miramax. There’s even casual use of the word cunt. But that harsh surface obscures some pretty astute comedy. But that comedy also covers up a by the numbers story.
Woody Allen stars as Harry Block, a writer who is accused by the people in his life of using them in his work. Those in his life, many of them women, are also portrayed in their fiction selves. Together they form one of the biggest casts Allen has ever assembled. When Block is honoured at his old school, he goes on a strange journey with his kidnapped son and a prostitute.
The film is scattered. The editing is jagged and manic, in a French New Wave type of thing. We find ourselves in the past, in the present, in fiction and in dreams. We cut away to several mini stories. Inevitably some parts are great, and some not so great. But it’s impressive just how many ideas Allen has managed to fit into this film.
Some of the great moments include Robin Williams‘ out-of-focus man. It’s impressive how that one off idea is brought back in at the end. Much like Demi Moore‘s story – again it feels like a throwaway gag that has much more resonance later. Some of the performances are amazing, in particular Judy Davis. Watch her in the long scene when she hears ablut Block’s divorce. She goes from girlish excitement to manic anger and all the while being hilarious, without a cut.
But there are some bad moments. The character of Block is one of Allen’s most unlikeable. The story at heart is badly formed and is but a rehash of “Wild Strawberries“. There’s so many undeveloped subplots you just know there are long sections cut out. The Elizabeth Shue and Billy Crystal parts are particularly underserved.
It’s a bit of a mess but a fascinating one. Allen has chosen to be so vulgar in this film. There’s plenty of swearing, and he calls several people cunts. It’s jarring for an Allen film. But it’s mixed up with so many great ideas and funny moments that despite the hard work, it’s worth it.
The film looks amazing. You just have to look at the hell set, probably the most elaborate set since Shadows And Fog. It’s one of Allen’s more high production films, and it shows. And it seems like some of the most famous and highly paid actors in the world are happy to just appear (and paid scale). Robin Williams isn’t even in focus! Julia Louis Dreyfuss appears for only a few minutes, and she was one of the highest paid actresses at the time.
Perhaps most important is what Allen is trying to say in this film. Is this a reaction to the invasion of his private life in the wake of his divorce from Mia Farrow? Or more damningly, the evaluation of all his previous work in light of that? Block starts off saying his films are not about him, but by the end relents that they mainly are. In the end, Allen’s probably the last person to understand how the world sees him.
“Deconstructing Harry” is a demented hilarity. It’s perhaps Allen’s angriest film, and makes little concession to it’s audience. It’s dirty, vulgar and scattered, but if you go with it there’s a lot of fun to get out of this.
Full cast: Woody Allen, Richard Benjamin, Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Bob Balaban, Elisabeth Shue Fay, Tobey Maguire, Jennifer Garner, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mariel Hemingway, Robin Williams, Hazelle Goodman, Eric Bogosian, Demi Moore, Caroline Aaron, Eric Lloyd, Amy Irving, Viola Harris, Shifra Lerer