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JANUARY 5, 1998: 

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY

What I wouldn't give for a large sock filled with horse manure. The Los Angeles Times' grizzled veteran reviewer Kenneth Turan slotted "Deconstructing Harry" into his top ten of 1997, asserting that "it is a scathing look at marriage, adultery and the literary life, Woody Allen's twenty-eighth feature is his most compelling and accomplished in years, psychologically acute, biting [sic] funny and willing to make audiences writhe in fury." I wish I had seen that movie. There's simply not a witty moment in "Deconstructing Harry," and the few jokes that prompt laughter are scattershot cruelties. The easily-pleased may savor the "shock" of hearing the lead character, a blocked novelist named, wouldn't you know, Harry Block, and embodied by the now-creaky and rheumy 62-year-old Allen, call an ex-wife a "world-class cunt." Zowie! That's enough to make me think it's Philip Roth! Some selfish, sex-mad Jewish writer! Unless of course, I'd actually read Philip Roth, whose little-regarded 1995 "Sabbath's Theater," for instance, has vim, vigor, anger and bile to spare, as well as a felicitous prose style. Obscenity and scatology are elevated pursuits; Allen's script seems content to have unimaginative swears. He's also got black prostitutes, prominent product placement for Glenmorangie single-malt Scotch and skits that go nowhere, as well as the usual panoply of guest stars-eighteen by my count. We musn't omit the roster of much-younger women, such as Judy Davis, Amy Irving and Elisabeth Shue, all ready to knock boots with him. But Allen has protested that Harry Block is not Woody Allen. No. Nope. Not at all. (Saul Bellow's crack that "Some writers are better met than read" seems to suit both Block and latterday Allen.) Allen claims that he wrote this script under the title "The Meanest Man in the World" and that every lead actor he offered the role to turned it down, begging off that it didn't suit their schedules. Let the great man down easy! There was no one to tell him that his pocket-lint style of composition had simply eked out a nice mat for the bottom of the desk drawer. (While we're at it, someone should go out and dig up Fellini and make him answer for what license Allen has taken from his work.) Janet Maslin of the New York Times likes this one, too. "Rancorous brilliance," she booms, "Poisonous, brazenly autobiographical comedy." Earlier this year, Maslin did a wondrous job of provoking Manhattanite fear of impoverished whites with a review that effectively destroyed the distribution of Harmony Korine's rancorously brilliant "Gummo." Now she's kissying up to Woody's no-longer-fine whines, which I found as uninteresting and contemptible as she did the younger man's film. Allen's only champions seem to be his peers-urban, middle-aged, privileged consumers of art and literature whose job it is to regurgitate the work of others. A cobwebby mirror to see oneself reflected back in? Double apostasy it may be, but "Deconstructing Harry" made me long for the timeless wit and stunning visual inspiration of a Henry Jaglom movie. 97m.


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