Sex, guns, drugs, murder, dead bodies in cars, hookers, a non-linear storyline, lots of jump-cuts, pop cultural references and profanity. Sounds like a recent release from the latest Tarantino-wannabe, right? So what’s all this doing in a Woody Allen movie?
Allen directs and stars as Harry, a short story writer with a highly disfunctional life. He has had three failed marraiges…none of which could survive his fascination with “the other woman”, ranging from mistresses to hookers, to even his own sister-in-law.
His literary side is faring much better. His former university, from which he was expelled, is now honoring him for his life’s work. Harry wants nothing better than to be surrounded by his family and friends at this high point in his career. However, his family and friends want nothing to do with him. You see, his writings have all been thinly veiled stories based on his personal life, and the secrets he revealed have shocked and scandalized his family and driven them away.
The movie intercuts viginettes throughout Harry’s personal life with the dramatizations he wrote of those events in his books. Virtually every character in the movie is played by at least two actors (more than three in Harry’s case), the “real life” character, and the thinly disguised one in Harry’s stories. However, as the movie goes on the real world and the fantasy one begin to intersect.
In Deconstructing Harry, Allen uses a camera device to create a mood. Many of the “real life” moments in the film are shot in a series of stuttering jump-cuts. This is apparently intended to create a sense of disorganization. But, as was the case with a similar literal-minded camera trick in his film Husbands and Wives, it just doesn’t work. The technique is annoying to the point that it loses all intended dramatic effect. At least Husbands and Wives had a decent storyline to fall back upon.
Deconstructing Harry isn’t that lucky. Initially hard to follow, once enough of the plot is revealed to make it recognizable it isn’t that compelling. We’ve seen lots and lots of films coping with Allen’s adulterous ramblings. This isn’t one of the better ones.
The film’s saving grace is its supporting cast. Billy Crystal, Elisabeth Shue, Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Judy Davis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kirstie Alley, Mariel Hemingway, Stanley Tucci, Bob Balaban, Julie Kavner and Tobey Maguire all play assorted roles in the picture. However, more evident than in Allen’s previous work, a lot of the casting seems to be done purely for the sake of recognizablility. The actors do a good job with what they’re given…but unfortunately that’s not much.
The “short story” moments of the film are its best parts, but lack their intended punch. The only inspired moment comes when Allen goes to Hell to have a conversation with the devil himself (Crystal).
What Woody Allen is doing with the Tarantino elements remains a mystery. To be fair, the film contains as many Allen-isms (adultery, neuroses, therapy, etc.) as Tarantino-isms. Rather than a Tarantino clone, the film seems to be created by the mutant hybrid of the two writer-directors, and not worthy of either. By including these elements, Allen may be trying to branch out to a new audience, or, more likely, he is simply experimenting with a new style. In any case, it doesn’t work.
In the end, Deconstructing Harry is a disappointment. Although on a recent triumphal roll with Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You, all good things must come to an end. Deconstructing Harry is that end.