Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

D: Woody Allen
S: Woody Allen, Mira Sorvino

An adoptive father (Woody Allen) becomes obsessed with tracing the natural mother of his child. When he discovers she is a prostitute (Mira Sorvino), he embarks on a quest to improve her life. Meanwhile his own marriage faces a crisis and things seem bound for tragedy. Fairly straightforward scenario enlivened by Woody Allen's particular sense of humour and assured direction. With characteristic self-awareness, Allen literally includes a Greek Chorus to play with the process of storytelling, constantly interrupting the action for a series of observations by characters from Greek myth performing amid classical ruins, including chorus leader F. Murray Abraham and a most amusing Cassandra. Though the pace is slow, determined by Allen's recent concern with long takes, tracking shots and pans instead of the quick-fire editing of his earlier films, it moves along dramatically just as it should, right down to its 'deus ex machina' climax and resolution.

Thematically the film still plays in the realm of nervous romance where Allen has always found his centre most effectively. It does stretch into more serious questions of marital trust, obsession and issues of control addressed so brilliantly in Husbands and Wives, but with a much lighter touch. It hits briefly upon ideas of parenthood and responsibility, but the film is mostly concerned with the central relationship between Allen and Sorvino, a peculiar type of semi-romantic odd coupling which plays well thanks to two good performances and Allen's keen eye for choice one-liners. Allen himself is visibly aging, but carries his long-established persona into a slightly more mature character with relative ease. He's a little more self-assured than he usually is, but there are some priceless moments of Allenesque panic when he meets Sorvino for the first time. Sorvino, for her part, is very entertaining as the not-quite-so-bright girl whose expectations of her self are too low for her to escape the rut she has found herself in, but who responds to Allen's interference with enough spirit to give her her dignity. Though her voice resembles Mickey Mouse's, she does succeed in generating a convincing roundedness, and though she is frequently the subject of jabs and gags, she is not denegrated, or is the life experience of a prostitute rendered as mere fantasy. There is a very real sense of the social and emotional trap she has found herself in, and though Allen has rather given himself a Godlike role in rescuing her from it, again he is aware of what he is doing here and does not ask us to think of it in docu-drama terms. Whenever events are in danger of becoming too serious or heated, the interruption of members of the Greek Chorus reminds us that we are working in the arena of drama here, not reality.

As usual the standard of performance even from minor actors is good. Helena Bonham-Carter, playing Allen's social climbing wife, is made up a little too much like Judy Davis for comfort (one scene features Allen and Sorvino eating in a café where Bonham-Carter's publicity photo is visible behind them), but handles herself (and her accent) well. Peter Weller exudes slimy self-confidence as the wealthy financier who woos her away from her husband and Jack Warden has an amusing cameo as a blind seer who meets Allen by The Acropolis (The New Acropolis restaurant, that is...). Crisp photography, a pleasingly appropriate score and some amusing song and dance routines from the Greek Chorus add to the tone, and Allen has managed to come up with a minor variant on his old formulae which should please fans and may win some casual viewers if it strikes them in the right mood. It is a lot lighter than much of his recent work has been though, and it's not nearly as entertaining as Manhattan Murder Mystery or Bullets Over Broadway. It is reaching towards something in terms of deconstructing its own dramatic structure (which would later reach an apotheosis in Deconstructing Harry), but as an example of latter-day Allen, it slips easily into the second rank and should provide the expected pleasures for those disposed to them.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.