Deconstructing Harry (1997)

D: Woody Allen
S: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Bob Balaban

Writer Harry Block (Woody Allen) is tortured by a combination of reality and fiction when he journeys to his former school to be honoured in recognition for his life's work. Short stories and novels he has written which have mirrored his own experiences blend into one another and become indistinguishable until he discovers why any and all of it is important to him as a person.

This film is a case of bluff to infinity. Is this a self-reflexive postmodernist masterpiece about the disintegration of meaning for a troubled artist made by an American artist whose personal life strongly echoes many of the conflicts and crises presented on screen? or is it so much stylistic masturbation? Plunging head first into the morass of postmodernism bearing the weaponry of self-conciousness, Woody Allen has made a movie which is more jittery and nervous than any he has made in a long time, in a sense returning him to the scattershot Hellzapoppin' sketchiness of his "earlier, funnier" pictures. But in another sense, it's Stardust Memories again, a film which is as likely to repel you with its self-indulgence as provoke you with its self effacement.

For casual audiences, Deconstructing Harry is likely to ensure than whatever lingering sympathies you might have had for Woody Allen's films following Bullets Over Broadway and Mighty Aphrodite will be thoroughly quashed. It can be an alienating experience, and its insistence on jump cutting, narrative disrupture, repetition and the fluctuation of frames of diagetic reference will seem like so much 'bad' film making. To the attuned, there is plenty of familiar filmic experimentation here. The devices of the modernists are brought to bear on a postmodern text with all the professional skill of a master film maker facing the last phase of his professional career (the 'out of focus' gags are a new one, and fun to figure out from a techincal standpoint). There are certain pleasures to be derived from that, and the film's ostensible chaos is certainly more thought provoking than the clinicism of Everyone Says I Love You. But there is a constant nagging feeling, like with all postmodernism, that fundamentally it's a lot of hogwash dressed up with intellectual respectability.

Given this reviewer's hostility to postmodern films in general, you may deduce that Deconstructing Harry is as effective and coherent a work of cinematic art as is necessary for critical recognition in the world at large. But there is a feeling all the same that this is the kind of film which should only be viewed as part of Woody Allen's work on the whole, and that despite its own avowed concern with the process of artistic and personal frustration and the gap between real life and fiction for a man immersed in a curious mixture of both, it's a film which says more for Woody Allen than for the rest of mankind (8 1/2 out of Stardust Memories again). There is nothing wrong with that, of course, and that has always been part of his appeal for fans including myself. But there is also something undignified about its stylistic self referentiality, something tiring and uncomfortable, like watching the elderly Groucho Marx in Love Happy.

The basic plot has strong echoes of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, with the usual overlay of Allenish humour. Again, this is something quite familiar to audiences at this stage in his career. But Deconstructing Harry is not touching in the way that Bergman's film is. Though certain of the experiences on screen may be universal as well as personal, as they were for Bergman, this is an introverted work of art which seems unduly independent of its audience's ability to understand it. It's not the Marshal McLuhan scene in Annie Hall, where Woody's address to the audience made us all feel comfortable. Neither, despite the presence of Mariel Hemmingway and the climactic assertion that if you deconstruct Woody's despair you will find happiness underneath, is it the life-affirming revelation of Manhattan. It's not even, given its aggressive explorations of representations of Jewish types, as affectionate and funny as Oedipus Wrecks. There is a feeling that the constant harping on about writer's block may not be entirely contrived, and that at it's heart Deconstructing Harry is not a fully realised film.

There's plenty to look at and laugh with here, and the plethora of star performers provide pleasures of their own. Billy Crystal is funny in the role of The Devil (don't ask), and Kirstie Alley has a great scene as a thoroughly disconcerting analyst. The film is often funny and generally enjoyable and may well pass by harmlessly enough if it strikes you in the right mood. But there's more than that going on here, quite consciously, and when we are compelled to explore its depths in more detail, it is not as rewarding an experience as one feels it should have been.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.