About five months ago, I decided to watch Annie Hall for the first time. It was also the first time I had ever watched a Woody Allen movie. I expected to appreciate it, but what I did not expect was that I took an instant liking to Allen’s humor, as well as the way he portrayed relationships, anxiety and existential dread.
Fast forward to mid-April, and I have watched over 20 Allen films. These include bullet proof classics such as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sleeper, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Midnight In Paris. The one film that outclassed them all for me, however, was Deconstructing Harry.
By 1997, Woody Allen was five years removed from his split with Mia Farrow and its accompanying controversy. His last several films boasted some of the biggest names he has ever worked with and showed that the respect and admiration he had achieved throughout his career had not been tarnished by his personal tribulations.
Consciously or unconsciously, Woody’s films in the aftermath of his legal issues were decidedly lighter affairs: Bullets and Aphrodite were madcap farces with reasonably happy endings, and Everyone Says I Love You was his first and only musical, with a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful conclusion. Woody has never admitted it, but one could deduce that the man was possibly trying to soften his image with the public. The films are largely lacking in the darker elements of his humor, such as his bracing existential critiques and caustic criticisms of religion and politics, with the exception of a few thinly veiled barbs.
For Deconstructing Harry, Woody returned to what he did best and unleashed the ugliest, most unpleasant and unsympathetic version of himself in the form of Harry Block, a successful writer who uses those closest to him as inspiration for his sordid, often deeply personal tales of humans at their worst.
A philandering, pill popping, thrice divorced wreck of a human, Block is unable to write for the first time in his life. He gets ideas but finds himself unable to put them onto the page. His son, the one part of his life where he’s actually put an effort into being a source of good, is forbidden from him by his second ex-wife, who also happens to be his former therapist. His mistress, who also happens to be his ex-sister-in-law, is driven nearly to suicide when his book destroys her marriage and relationship with her sister. The woman he really loves has decided to marry a close friend that he introduced her to.
In the midst of all this, Block should have a silver lining to look forward to: the college that once kicked him out has now decided to honor him as an esteemed alumni due to his success. This small bit of validation, however, feels hollow to him, as he feels he has no one to celebrate it with. Through a series of mishaps, chance encounters, and an impromptu kidnapping, Block manages to drum up enough enthusiasm within himself to make the trek out to the event, and along the way he discovers some significant and unpleasant truths about himself he needs to confront in order to continue his success.
As previously mentioned, Deconstructing Harry can be seen as a return to form for Allen when looked at within the entire trajectory of his career; it can also be seen as a farewell the Woody Allen we all know and love. As one astute Redditor pointed out, Deconstructing Harry may well be the last true classic Woody movie: like Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Hannah and Her Sisters, the film deals with a struggling creative type trying to make sense of failed professional and personal setbacks set agains the backdrop of New York. The themes of Judaism, existential dread, and finding a sense of purpose in a world that seems to not to provide one are all there. The only film post-Harry that revisits any of these themes is Midnight in Paris, and as good as that film is, it does not approach them with the depth or rawness that Deconstructing Harry does.
The loneliness of the creative process and being a struggling artist is personified by Harry Block; he mentions more than once that he cannot function in reality, but instead must rely on his art to get by in life. Writers are often told to write what they know, but Harry is the ‘worst case scenario’ of this advice, as his well of inspiration winds up alienating him from everyone he has attempted to care about.
Allen gives us a direct line to Block’s imagination, as the film alternates between Block’s real life and his visualizations of what he would like his stories to become or have become; one particularly funny and profound one features Robin Williams as Mel, an actor who one day literally goes ‘out of focus.’ Williams spend the entirety of his screentime blurry and distorted, until his wife and children are forced to get glasses so that he can be seen more clearly. Block’s therapist suggests that this mirrors Block’s own selfishness, as he expects the world to adapt to him rather than he change for the better.
Block’s characters, as previously stated, are based on his real life experiences; more specifically, they are vindicative, vengeful avatars of people in his own life he has come to view with contempt; Ken (Richard Benjamin) and Grace (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) are in-laws sleeping around the side, much like Harry and his third wife’s sister Lucy (Judy Davis). Paul (Stanley Tucci) marries Helen (Demi Moore), his former therapist, which is the exact same trajectory as his relationship with his second wife, Joan (Kirstie Alley). Helen and Paul’s relationship falls apart when Helen embraces her Jewish heritage to a fanatical degree, similar to the spiritually inept Harry’s falling out with his estranged sister (Caroline Aaron). His father, who resented him when his wife died giving birth to him, is depicted once as a Jewish stereotype with a groteseque secret. His former best friend Larry (Billy Crystal) is now the Devil in Harry’s mind, because he is marrying Faye (Elisabeth Shue), a woman he loved but pushed away with his rigidity and neuroses.
Harry finds companionship in his hypochondriac friend Richard (Bob Balaban), his son Hilly (Eric Lloyd), and a hooker named Cookie (Hazelle Williams in the first major African American role in any Allen film), all of whom accompany him to his honoring ceremony. For a brief moment, Harry is content: he has friends, he has a sense of companionship, he feels loved and appreciated despite his flaws. As the journey goes on, however, his characters leap off the pages and confront him about his many transgressions and how they’ve hurt and alienated those who once truly cared for him. By the end of the film, Harry’s epiphany leads to him to realize he has but one true friend that he hasn’t alienated: his art; in order to maintain that relationship, however, Harry must come to terms with his failures and internalized resentments, so that the proverbial block on his creativity can be lifted.
Deconstructing Harry may or not be Woody Allen’s best film for me; it’s tough for me to make an argument for it being better than Crimes and Misdemeanors or Annie Hall. It is, however, my favorite of Allen’s films, for it speaks to the struggling artist that lives within all of us. It portrays the need to create and leave a legacy through art in painfully probing, uncomfortably accurate details. Its commentary is all at once brutal, sublime, and uplifting.
It’s also really, really fucking funny.