Movie Review: "Deconstructing Harry"

January 07, 1998

Movie Review: "Deconstructing Harry"

Audiences often are tempted to blur the line between art and the artist. With the increasing popularity of memoirs and what would seem to be intimate details of private lives revealed to millions daily via the media and "talk" shows, it only would seem logical to assume that an artist sacrifices privacy and translates it into art.

Harry Block (Woody Allen) deludes himself that there is no separation between what he writes and what he lives. With "Deconstructing Harry," Allen uses comedic vignettes to demonstrate the tenuous balance between art and life.

The film opens with a woman played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss sneaking into a log cabin for some shenanigans with her brother-in-law, played by Richard Benjamin. When her grandmother, with eyesight about as good as the next dead person, walks in on them, it becomes witty in a perverse form only Allen can handle so brilliantly.


We're startled in the next scene as we realize this has been a scene from Harry's latest novel. Judy Davis, playing the real-life (though "real-life" gains new meaning in this film) sister-in-law, explodes into Harry's apartment with a tirade about how his fact-thinly-disguised-as-fiction hurts people more than he realizes.

What follows are a series of surreal, hilarious meetings of factual and fictional characters. Harry runs into his fictional alter ego and gets advice on how to incorporate his life better into his writing, and vice versa.

"Deconstructing Harry" features Allen, the undisputed master of neurotic comedy, lamenting the fractured realities that divide an artist from his life. The film portrays, in a manner less familiar to "Rashomon" than to "Ally McBeal," alternative interpretations of particular events. "Deconstructing Harry" conveys the (sometimes dangerous) interchangeable aspects of fantasy and reality.

Allen's more inventive and profane than he was in "Bullets Over Broadway," which had similar themes but was more controlled in its wit and thereby far less off-the-cuff and shocking than "Deconstructing Harry."

Allen has made his "Inferno." His version of hell has a more burlesque sensibility than Dante could have imagined.

This film charts the depths of Harry's debilitating debauchery - Harry tells his analyst "Every woman I see I want to (have sex with)" - until Harry, a frequent customer of prostitutes whose only loyalty is to infidelity, journeys on fever dream into a deliciously imagined hell.

Billy Crystal, in reality playing one of Harry's writer friends who has stolen the girl of his dreams (Elisabeth Shue), is the martini-sipping ruler of the Underworld, who keeps his lair cool with air conditioning just to subvert the ozone layer.

Comedy generally is deemed to be the inversion of tragedy, a reflection of pain made painfully funny. Allen, who never has written a more acidic script than this, realizes that. He takes the follies of Harry and, as one of the characters berates Harry, "spin(s) it into gold."

The rabid, ribald odyssey Harry takes to be honored by the college he was once expelled from, accompanied by his son (Eric Lloyd) whom he has kidnapped, a black "escort" named Cookie (Hazelle Goodman), and a friend with a fatal heart ailment (Bob Balaban), is surely the work of a Rumplestiltskin with a wicked sense of humor.

After a brisk, brutal 90 minutes, Harry decides that he needs the discipline and structure of his writing to combat the amoral and amorphous nature of his human being.

"Deconstructing Harry" is the work of an artist with enough resolve and distance to make a film more biting and truthful than the tell-all tabloidism of "real life."

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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