Deconstructing Harry (1997)

reviewed by
Mark R. Leeper


                         DECONSTRUCTING HARRY
                    A film review by Mark R. Leeper
               Capsule: A number of interesting stylistic
          touches that work to varying degrees of success.
          The story, however, is a disjointed, confusing
          portrait of an almost totally uninteresting
          Lothario who never misses an opportunity to screw
          up his own life and to hurt others.  The film is a
          collection of story fragments and manipulative
          arguments.  If this is a confession Allen should
          have written it in his diary and put it under his
          pillow, not on the screen.  Rating: 3 (0 to 10), -1
          (-4 to +4)
          New York Critics: 16 positive, 4 negative, 1 mixed

Woody Allen is one of the most successful artist-directors in Hollywood, but he is becoming less and less reliable as a filmmaker. In his early years of film-making he mastered the simple comedy. From there he went into a second phase and took risks experimenting with different approaches and styles. Some of these work better than others. ZELIG and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS are the work of a creative and intelligent artist. DECONSTRUCTING HARRY goes to the other extreme and is a bizarre experiment demanding more of the viewer than it gives back.

Harry Block (Allen) has in his life only two drives. He wants to have sex with as many women as possible and when he makes a mess of his life and those of his lovers he wants to retreat into his writing. The story of this static and highly unsympathetic character is told with a number of often clumsy stylistic experiments. Perhaps the most irritating device is to express the disjointedness of Harry's life by editing Harry's scenes putting in cuts in the middle as if to show missing time with something edited out. As a writer, Harry puts his friends into his books in the thinnest of disguises. The film dramatizes incidents from these supposed books and cuts between his real story line and fragments from Harry's books with different actors playing the real and fictional people in Harry's life. These fragments are frustrating in their lack of completion, but even more frustrating is the bringing of the characters out of the fragments into scenes with the real characters. It is up to the viewer to keep track not just who is fictional and who is real but also to keep straight who is the fictional doppelganger of which real person. If that sounds complicated, it is. Then as another device in one of the stories, an actor seems to have the peculiar property that he has gone out of focus and can only be seen in blurry image. Harry sees this as a metaphor for his own condition and himself goes blurry for a short time. As if these touches did not create sufficient confusion, the story is told out of chronological order. If Allen were giving the audience a story that was worth decoding, any and all of these stylistic touches could be excusable. But Allen puts the audience through all of this to give us a portrait of Harry Block who is a selfish manipulator who is not worth the effort to understand.

DECONSTRUCTING HARRY is set at a time when Harry's old college, the one that expelled him when he attended it, wants now to honor him for a lifetime of writing achievement. Harry is searching among his friends to find one who will go with him. Just why someone who is so unwilling to commit to a relationship with anyone suddenly needs the support of someone else is unclear. Harry tries his current girl friend Fay (Elizabeth Shue) only to find that she is about to marry Harry's old friend Larry (Billy Crystal). Block would like his son Hilly (Eric Lloyd) to accompany him, but Hilly's mother, previously first Harry's psychiatrist and more recently his wife, refuses to let her son see his father. Another friend Richard (Bob Balaban) would go but has health problems. Harry also considers bringing a prostitute Cookie (Hazel Goodman). It is interesting that Allen should introduce another likable prostitute so soon after MIGHTY APHRODITE, but Cookie is considerably different--black and a lot brighter than Mira Sorvino's character in the previous film.

While the comedy sequences are never complete, a few are elaborate and some quite funny. The centerpiece of the film is a journey into Hell with Allen playing a sort of Orpheus rescuing Fay from the clutches of the Devil, who looks a lot like Larry. That story also is left uncompleted, perhaps to show Harry's unwillingness to commit even to telling a story. The linchpin that was needed to tie together the stylistic quirks of this film was a central character who changes and who gives us something about which to care. That character is patently not the one Allen creates in Harry Block and not the characters around Harry as seen through his acerbic eyes. Allen can do much better than DECONSTRUCTING HARRY. I rate it a 3 on the 0 to 10 scale and a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

                                        Mark R. Leeper
                                        mleeper@lucent.com
                                        Copyright 1997 Mark R. Leeper

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