Woody Allen plays the same character in every film. There are subtle shades here and there – sometimes he’ll be a frustrated television writer, others a frustrated novelist. Even when he strays slightly from the formula he retains the same wisecracking cynicism. But rather than becoming a creative restriction, this characteristic similarity evokes something more like a cohesive overall narrative, equally ambitious and audacious in its brashly autobiographical tone. Much of his best work blurs the line of fiction, achieving a meta-quality that offers revealing insights into his familiar muses love, death, and general neurosis. He has often used the women in his life as his cinematic counterparts, resulting either in the effortless chemistry in films like Annie Hall and Broadway Danny Rose, or the chilling bitterness in Husband and Wives, produced during the firestorm involving Mia Farrow and her adopted daughter. His own character is invariably neurotic, highly literate, and bitterly cynical toward the world at large, but all of this is filtered through a wit that lends his work a certain humanity.
Deconstructing Harry is his most openly autobiographical film. The protagonist Harry Block is a writer struggling with his creative discipline – he writes incomplete fragments and borrows heavily from events in his own life for his work. Similarly the film itself seems like a jumbled series of vignettes cobbled together by an auteur struggling with the same sort of creative predicament. The vignettes interwoven with the main narrative feel like pieces lifted from Allen’s own short fiction work: the stories of the actor living his life literally out of focus or Death arriving at a case of mistaken identity would be well at home in one of his short story collections. The freewheeling main plot – which itself was already used in 1980’s Stardust Memories – meanders about on a very thin rail of plausibility, cut together haphazardly with flashbacks and vignettes. Then there are scenes shot in an almost interview style in which he’s lamenting on all of this to his analyst; these are particularly unnerving – gone are the absurd quips that peppered similar scenes in his earlier comedies, replaced now with a desperate sense of verisimilitude that feels cathartic. It’s a messy, chaotic film, with odd editing style to match, employing distinctive, abrupt cuts in scenes of dialogue.
But Deconstructing Harry is very funny. Not only funny in the traditional film way, but funny in a Woody Allen way, which is anything but traditional. If it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his early comedic work, it certainly comes as close as he ever has and perhaps ever will. Many of his modern comedies have fallen flat, devoid of the real genius of his wit: Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Scoop are all evidence that the bird has flown. That is not to say that these are not mildly entertaining films or that he can’t still craft a good joke or humorous episode, but the comic ingenuity through which he defined his persona is no longer evident. There was always a daring, provocative element to his comedic milieu; he didn’t merely drop the name of a famous literary figure or philosopher, but did so in such a clever way as to question its cultural importance as well. The riffing banter was emblematic of a restless intelligence, always searching and never quite satisfied, but the punchlines were invariably delivered at his own expense.
This film returns to that self-effacing style, and yet it does so with such brash honesty that it feels like new territory. In the opening vignette, an illicit sexual act between a husband and his sister-in-law in the bathroom at a family barbecue is comically overheard by an elderly relative who’s wandered into the house; “Wow, you must really love onions,” she tags the scene. This is then revealed to be a scene from a recently published novel and the real sister-in-law in question has now arrived at Block’s apartment to murder him with a handgun. Block pleads for his life in typical Woody Allen style, ultimately leading into another vignette from one of his stories that assuages her with its punchline. This sets the narrative tone as well as the main theme of film: Block’s work, scattershot and blatantly autobiographical though it may be, saves his life. It also underscores the seriousness of his creative predicament, for without his art, all he has is the real world which that art has also nearly destroyed. It’s a nice little circle of existential despair, perfectly appropriate for a Woody Allen comedy.
The framework for the film might seem at first a little thin, more of a collection of vignettes supported by a familiar plot than a fresh creative endeavor. But there is real genius here, perhaps even paradoxically so given the circumstances. It’s compelling, and uncomfortably funny in the way his best work always was, the way we wince at these embarrassing predicaments and episodes that are played out for all their humor. Block visits his young son in a classroom full of other kids and visiting parents and asks him to think of a nickname for his penis; “Dillinger,” the boy responds and the proud father reacts as if he’s just hit the game winning home run. The fact that one of the disapproving parents who overhears the conversation (which also veers into the areas of god, women, and Victoria’s Secret) is played by Mariel Hemingway adds another meta-fictional layer to the context. Of course, she played his seventeen year old girlfriend in 1979’s Manhattan. So are we in the same universe here? Perhaps: it’s the sort of thing Frank Zappa called “conceptual continuity.”
But there is a real difference here as well, a darkness apparent from the outset. Woody Allen has been dumped by women onscreen many times, most comically in 1971’s Bananas (“You’re immature emotionally, sexually, and intellectually” – “Yeah, but what other ways?”) But this film opens with a woman threatening to kill him, with a raving Judy Davis lending the scene an element of unhinged realism. Everyone’s had it with him – his ex-wife hates him, his sister resents him, another ex-girlfriend is engaged to a rival colleague. The only real stable relationship in the course of the film is with a black hooker named Cookie.
The familiar Woody Allen persona is in big trouble in this film. And it’s precisely due to the incorporation of so much of his personal life into his public work, thereby alienating everyone close to him. Perhaps out of pain comes great art – but is it really worth it when you’ve got women threatening to kill you over it? Yes, it is worth it. That’s what the message seems to be here. At the end of the film all of his characters and creations come together to congratulate him in a scene that merges the fantasy and reality that have been intertwined through the narrative. They’re all there to support him: Death, the actor out of focus, even the cannibalistic Jewish husband who ate his ex-family. It’s an odd group for sure, one that has nearly destroyed his personal life in the way they mirror various elements. But this is his real family, his real life. And if that seems maladjusted or narcissistic, then so be it. More importantly, his inspiration has returned, as he begins to write about – what else? – the fractured life of a troubled artist. His writing has saved his life again.
Deconstructing Harry is not for everybody. It’s a chaotic film full of choppy edits and loose ends, bulked up by bizarre vignettes and endless cameos by the likes of Demi Moore, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal. (The best of these is Eric Bogosian as the militant Jewish brother-in-law offended by the blatantly sacrilegious tone of Block’s work.) The humor is often dark and raw, quite unlike the highbrow witticisms and solemn drama of much of his recent work at that point. It’s more of a jumbled a catharsis than a cohesive narrative, like a harrowing therapeutic breakthrough. As such, it’s not pretty. But this is a landmark Woody Allen film, perhaps the most audacious film he’s ever made. And from the man who brought us the love story of Gene Wilder and his sheep, that’s really saying something.