Deconstructing Harry (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Deconstructing: To write about or analyze in a way that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth, asserts that words can only refer to other words, and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition)

How much of Woody Allen is there in Harry Block? This is undoubtedly one of the questions likely to be foremost in any viewer's mind after watching Allen's 1997 feature, Deconstructing Harry. It's also the question most often asked of the director in interviews about the film. Allen has been understandably evasive, stating repeatedly that, while there may be some similarities between Harry and himself, the movie is a work of fiction and Harry is nothing more than a character.

Of course, it could be argued that artists, regardless of whether they're authors, painters, or movie directors, aren't always aware of the full ramifications of what they create. It seems clear that Allen is doing a little more with Deconstructing Harry than simply telling a funny story. But is he using Harry Block as a means to work through some personal demons, in a form of on-screen therapy? Or is this a none-too-subtle jab at all the critics who want to inextricably entwine Allen's real life with his reel life? The truth is, it's probably a little of both. If Deconstructing Harry has an overriding theme, it's that the man and the artist can be separated, and, even if the man is a despicable person, his art can redeem him.

Of course, this makes Deconstructing Harry sound like a deeply philosophical movie, which it isn't, and the seemingly-pretentious title only adds to the confusion. But the film is appropriately named. Deconstructing Harry doesn't tell a straightforward or linear story. Instead, it uses a fairly unremarkable plot as a springboard for comic vignettes that gradually answer questions about Harry's identity. Like the layers of an onion, the folds of his life, both as told through "true" flashbacks and "fictionalized" accounts, are peeled away, offering a clear picture of the man -- and it's not a pretty one.

So who is Harry Block? He is, by some accounts, one of the most unpleasant men alive. Since he's played by Woody Allen, he's also an insecure and self-absorbed individual, as well. (Has there ever been an Allen character who wasn't a poorly-adjusted neurotic?) Professionally, he's a world-famous, bestselling author who writes thinly-veiled autobiographical tales about his relationships with his three ex-wives. Personally, he's a wretch -- a pill-popping, alcoholic lout who has few friends and can't stay faithful to one woman. By his own admission, he hasn't grown up, is a failure at life, has no soul, and is a self-hating Jew. According to another character, the whole purpose of his life is "sarcasm and orgasm." He's thoroughly dislikable, and one of the film's failings is that it occasionally tries (unsuccessfully) to sympathize with him. Harry is best viewed from a distance.

Ostensibly, the film is about Harry's trip to upstate New York, where a college that expelled him as an undergraduate now wants to honor him as a distinguished alumnist. At the same time, he's looking to overcome a severe case of writer's block. Along with Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), a hooker he hired for the day; Richard (Bob Balaban), a friend with a bad heart; and Hilly (Eric Lloyd), his son, Harry heads north. Along the way, we get to know him through both flashbacks of events from his life and anecdotes from his books, which are really just different flashbacks with other actors playing identical parts. For example, Demi Moore plays Harry's second wife in the excerpts from his novels, while Kirstie Alley plays the same character in "real life". Harry even has two fictional stand-ins for himself, played by Richard Benjamin and Stanley Tucci.

All this might sound confusing, but it's really not. Allen's script isn't linear, but it isn't difficult to piece together. The intent is to amuse, not to confuse. However, aside from piquing the viewer's curiosity about how much of Allen is in Harry, there's not a whole lot of depth to Deconstructing Harry. It's a movie of moments, some of which are side-splittingly funny. Arguably, this is the most uproarious comedy that Allen has ever done. The dialogue is almost always as brilliant and witty as it is profane. There are as many genuinely funny one-liners here as in any other movie this year. I won't go into detail describing my favorite scenes, but one offers a visit from Death, another includes an elevator ride into Hell (where the women are topless, the band plays "Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing)", and Billy Crystal runs the place), and a third features a blind grandmother. Then there's Robin Williams, who, in a cameo, has never been so delightfully out of focus.

Deconstructing Harry is an uneven piece of work, but the high level of comedy covers up many of the rough spots. Allen fans won't confuse this latest outing with the likes of The Purple Rose of Cairo, Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it's good to know that the director can still poke fun at himself, despite his tarnished image. We may never know how much of this film is pure fiction and how much is self-analysis, but one thing is for sure -- once the laughter has subsided and the end credits have rolled, audience members will begin deconstructing Woody.

Deconstructing Harry (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:38
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1