Deconstructing Harry film review

This film review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on April 17, 1998 (released in USA 12 December 1997).

Directed and written by Woody Allen

Starring Caroline Aaron, Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Hazelle Goodman, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Eric Lloyd, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams

Fans of Woody Allen treat any new film of his as an event, and each year Allen has given us another one to savour.  His 1997 film was Deconstructing Harry, not quite a “return to best form” but more a fascinating extension of the themes he has been pursuing for some years:  fidelity in relationships, psychoanalysis, the existance of God, good and evil, parent/child and sibling relationships, and – most interesting of all – the nature of being Jewish at the end of the 20th century in the light of the Holocaust.

Deconstructing Harry‘s central character is Harry Block (played by Woody himself), a novelist experiencing writers’ block (get it?) who has recently publishing a thinly disguised “tell all” book about his life.  The problem is that Harry is not a particularly nice guy, and just about everyone he knows is angry at him.  During the course of the film, Harry gets to meet various ex-wives, ex-lovers, ex-competitors and disaffected relations; we see both the dramatised fictional representations from Harry’s book in contrast with Harry’s “real” experiences.  The result is something of rollercoaster ride of mature neurosis, with many slyly funny comments on how we change fact into fiction, and vice versa.

Deconstructing Harry is undeniably clever, and certainly deserved its “best original screenplay” Oscar nomination (losing out to Good Will Hunting) – Woody Allen’s twelfth nomination in this category, which must be a record.  Compare this film’s spare and careful 95 minutes to the lengthy bloated blockbusters that often grace cinemas.  And he really does introduce literally tens of major characters, acted by a “who’s who” cast that includes Kirstie Alley (as one of Harry’s ex-wives), Bob Balaban (a hapless friend in true hapless form), Richard Benjamin as a fictional alter-ego (remember how he looked in Goodbye Columbus?), Eric Bogosian the religious brother-in-law, Billy Crystal as friend Larry (and fictional devil), Judy Davis as Lucy a former mistress, Hazelle Goodman as a black prostitute, Amy Irving as another “ex”, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the fictionalised Lucy, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue as an “ex”, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams as the man who is out of focus.

There is a hard, cynical, and close to nasty edge to this film which may put off some people.  But I thoroughly enjoyed  Deconstructing Harry for so many things:  the energy, the gifted performances (ironically, Woody’s performance grated the most for me, but see for yourself), the neat interweaving of fiction and “reality” (shades of The Purple Rose of Cairo), but most of all for its total and thorough Jewishness, in a way that only his Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors achieved in the past.   Deconstructing Harryfeels like a classic New York Jewish intellectual novel from the 1960s in the mode of a Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud or Philip Roth, and that alone is a treat.


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