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Case Number 00272

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Deconstructing Harry

New Line // 1997 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dean Roddey (Retired) // January 18th, 2000

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All Rise...

The Charge

Never mix business and pleasure, especially if you are a writer.

Opening Statement

Unless you have been in a coma for a few decades, you know of Woody Allen and his film work. He has made a living putting Jewish angst to celluloid, and does it better than anyone. His reputation is such that he can basically pick any actors he wants, so he picks from among the best, often using large ensemble casts.

This film is no exception; but, though obviously a Woody Allen film, has a different feel from most of what he's done lately. Its more raw and bitter than usual, though its still extremely funny in a dark sort of way. And though I don't know Mr. Allen, I have a suspicion it might be more than a bit autobiographical. The funny thing about that is that the film is about a man who gets into trouble for writing books that cut too close to the bone, other people's bones in this case.

The Evidence

Harry Block played by Woody Allen (Antz, Mighty Aphrodite, Husbands and Wives, et cetera…) is a very cynical and jaded New York writer who has had a long and well received career as a writer of novels, many based on lightly veiled versions of his own life. Harry is going downhill fast, having alienated almost everyone he knows, by airing their dirty laundry in his books. Now he's a pill popping alcoholic, who has run out of things to say. He pretty much spends his time seeing his shrink, drinking, taking various prescription medications, and hanging out with hookers. The one we meet in this film is Cookie, played by Hazelle Goodman (Heat, True Identity).

The structure of the film is just a series of vignettes of Harry's life, draped over a light plot of having to go back to his old college (from which he was expelled in his youth), to be honored as a novelist. This story is intercut with scenes from Harry's books, which are relevant to the circumstances at hand. They are presented as sort of 'flash sideways' hallucinations by Harry as he begins to come unwound. In lesser hands, this style could have just turned into a big mush. But Allen makes it work well.

Another common stylistic pattern used is that of a quick series of fast cuts of a scene, sometimes repeating parts of it. I'm assuming that this was used because the film was made in a pretty improvisational way. By grabbing the best parts of multiple versions of a scene, and cutting them together in this way, it makes the film quirky and makes use of bits of film that would have otherwise have not been useable, I would imagine. This style also works well with Allen's famous pithy quips and one liners, of which he delivers many in this film.

The other characters of the film are both real and book based, and often the imaginary ones are direct references to real characters. So there are often two or three people playing the same roles from different view points. There are so many people in this film that I'll just introduce the most important ones all in list. Trying to introduce them all and explain the parts they play would become very complicated and would ruin the film for you.

• Doris—Caroline Aaron (Husbands and Wives, A Modern Affair, Primary Colors)
• Joan—Kirstie Alley (Look Who's Talking, Madhouse, Blind Date)
• Richard—Bob Balaban (2010, Waiting for Guffman, Cradle Will Rock)
• Ken—Eric Bogosian (A Bright Shining Lie, Talk Radio, Gossip)
• Larry—Billy Crystal (The Princess Bride, Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers)
• Lucy—Judy Davis (The New Age, Children of the Revolution, The Ref)
• Beth Kramer—Mariel Hemmingway (Personal Best, Naked Gun 33 1/3, Delirious)
• Jane—Amy Irving (The Competition, Carrie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
• Grace—Julie Kavner (The Simpsons, Tracey Takes On, Radio Days)
• Leslie—Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Christmas Vacation, A Bug's Life, Father's Day)
• Helen—Demi Moore (Ghost, St. Elmo's Fire, The Seventh Sign)
• Fay—Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, Palmetto, The Saint)
• Mel—Robin Williams (Toys, What Dreams May Come, Being Human)

This is only about half the characters, but in and of itself speaks volumes about Allen's stature among actors.

Kirstie Alley plays one of Harry's ex-wives, Joan, with whom he has a child that she will hardly ever let him see. They met because she was his shrink originally. Then they got involved, and eventually got married. But over time they drifted apart, and Harry began having affairs, with Joan's sister among others. In one hilarious scene, the two are having a screaming match when one of her patients shows up at the house for a session. She periodically gets up and goes into the next room and reams him out at top volume, while her obviously very fragile patient writhes on the couch.

A number of the book flashes are based on Joan and Harry's relationship, though with some of the attributes of the book Joan, played by Demi More, coming from Harry's sister, Doris. Doris and Harry have drifted apart since childhood because she married a very conservative Jewish man. Needless to say, Harry's lifestyle doesn't go over very well with Doris and the new hubby. On the way upstate to his honoring ceremony, Harry drops in to visit his sister, and they immediately begin arguing. During this scene, Harry delivers what I think is the funniest line in the film. Dories tells Harry, "You have no values. With you its all nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm," to which Harry replies "Hey, in France I could run for office with that slogan, and win." I almost spit my Perrier across the room on that one.

The rest of film runs similarly, with lots of very funny dialogue and situations. By the time Harry gets to his honoring ceremony, he has his kidnapped son with him, a hooker carrying drugs, the dead body of his friend who has a heart attack on the way, and the cops are there waiting.

Unlike the other Woody Allen films I've seen on DVD so far, this one is anamorphic though it does not say so on the box. Its in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it looks quite good. This is a major step forward I think, when this kind of film gets the technical attention it deserves. Its not stellar video quality, but its far better than say Crimes and Misdemeanors, which I hope to get reviewed soon as well.

The audio is just in Dolby Stereo, which is good enough for this kind of film, i.e. a talky. The vocals all seem pretty reasonably well recorded and are easy to understand.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Like most (all?) of Allen's DVD based releases so far, there are no extras. Is it just me, or is it somewhat insane to release these films without a commentary track from Allen? Of all the directors out there, is he not one you'd really like to get a commentary track from? Oh well, who knows what drives these decisions…

If you haven't liked any Woody Allen movies so far, then you certainly won't like this one. Though its a little raunchier than most, its still classic Allen fare. If you are easily offended, then certainly it won't be your cup of tea.

If you want to get really technical about it, some of the more fanciful side stories in this film could be seen as fillers that drift a little too far from the core of the story. They all do relate in some way, and are all funny, but sometimes aren't as well anchored as the rest of the material.

Closing Statement

What can I say, I'm a big Woody Allen fan. I like this kind of intelligent talky flick. Every film of Allen's usually has at least three or four lines so funny that I burst out laughing. And one certainly can't complain about the caliber of the acting, which is always top flight. The kind of latitude that Allen's films evidently provide draws good actors like flies.

My only wish is that they would have more extras and better sound tracks. I know these aren't exactly James Cameron mega-blockbusters, but they deserve better treatment than they get.

The Verdict

Acquitted, though an extended period of probation is recommended due to lack of extras and attention to technical detail.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 88
Audio: 75
Extras: 10
Acting: 98
Story: 95
Judgment: 73

Perp Profile

Studio: New Line
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Genre:
• Comedy

Distinguishing Marks

• Talent Bios

Accomplices

• IMDb








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