Comfortable and Furious

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Deconstructing Harry is, at last, Woody Allen’s confessional. As his character Harry Block says to a throng of admirers once he reaches the college now conferring upon him an honorary degree, “I won’t deny it anymore”’s me.” We knew it all along, of course, but how fitting indeed that he waited until this film to put an end to the hollow denials, for his Harry is, above all, the dastardliest creation of his long career, and yes, he’s all the better for it. Depending on how you look at it, this could very well be Woody’s most lasting work, though I doubt I’d ever be up for the challenge of knocking Crimes and Misdemeanors off its lofty perch. And yet, there’s no getting around the delightful nastiness of the film; the dripping, gleeful misanthropy that refuses all calls for surrender, while also maintaining an iron grip on the very essence of humor, which for Woody always revolves around our collective insanity.

Harry — like Woody — is vain, childishly self-involved, and hostile to any and all change, and if that appears to describe every character he has ever played, keep in mind that this was the first time he refused to make the disconnect. I’ve always loved his characters — fiendishly insecure intellectuals who used wit and invective with which to spear pomposity — but never more than here, for at last, he has discovered the eternal secret that has bedeviled artists and entertainers alike for centuries: how to make the unlikable thoroughly likable. He’s so damned effortless, in fact, that one wonders why it isn’t attempted more often.

Every situation, most of which are imagined scenes from Harry’s writing, rings true; more so because they spare no feelings or sensitivities. He’s not above creating a brother-in-law, for example, who is, as he describes him, a “professional Jew” — the sort of man who clings to his God with such mindless devotion that each and every question becomes recast as a spiritual dilemma. This even runs through the character of one ex-wife (played by Demi Moore), who is so devout that she believes it is necessary to pray over her husband’s penis before proceeding with fellatio. Still, Harry is up to his sanctimonious brother-in-law’s challenge: “I may hate myself, but not ’cause I’m Jewish.” We respond because so few of us admit to this sense of defeat; that most of what we do in our insignificant lives is motivated by sheer terror and feelings of inadequacy. From the overly expressive extrovert to the morose loner, we’re all connected by our self-loathing. Harry is more than a cinematic expression of Woody’s very being; he’s the ultimate Everyman.

And my, how quotable this film is, reaching so many characters, but, as we would expect, giving egomaniacal Harry the best lines:

“Tradition is the illusion of permanence.”

“All people know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.”

“I think you’re the opposite of paranoid. I think you go around with the insane delusion that people like you.”

“Well, yes, nothing’s wrong with science. You know, between air conditioning and the Pope, I’ll take air conditioning.”

“The most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you,’ but ‘it’s benign.’”

His life, as so brilliantly stated by his sister, is “nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm, and orgasm,” a slogan that could not only guarantee electoral success in France, but one that endears him to everyone who feels pressured to side with diplomacy and work towards a better future for all. Harry beds whores, pops pills, drinks too much, ruins lives, asks for blowjobs at funerals, tries to break up marriages, and never appears to be motivated by the so-called “instinctive” sense of the common good. He’s Woody’s most revolutionary creation, then, in that he makes us roar with delight at his (our) utter contempt for the whole idea of “being a better man.” What will such a life get you, anyway, other than defeat, disappointment, and, like his friend, a fatal heart attack in the back seat of a car? Sure, Harry seems tortured by his decisions, but only because the world fails to conform to his selfish desires. And don’t attack him for the wreck we’re all inhabiting. As he states, “Yeah, hey, we’re alone in the universe, you’re gonna blame that on me, too?”

Harry is the driving force of the film, of course, but I’m as apt to cheer the sassy young prostitute Cookie, a fearless woman in her own right, who also retains the sort of compassion that allows her to give out a free blowjob because her client seems a little down. Sure, it’s outrageous fantasy (if anyone knows the value of a dollar, it’s a whore), but with Cookie, it seems exactly right. She’s beyond understanding Harry’s literary allusions or sexual fantasies involving Svetlana Stalin, but she’s so much herself as to be heroic. Some have argued that Woody’s deepest strain of misogyny springs forth in his near-obsessive need to have a hooker tucked somewhere in the screenplay, but in this case, why would Harry not commodify the very act that drives him to distraction? Harry might have trouble disconnecting women from their role as love maker, but I’ve always viewed the character inclusion as a nod to the realities of his gender. All men don’t hate women, of course, but few could convincingly argue that men would spend much time in the company of females if an orgasm wasn’t at least a possibility at some point during the course of the evening. Harry (or Woody) merely came upon this truth and mined it for the infinite possibilities; don’t accuse him of inventing anything out of whole cloth.

Above all, Deconstructing Harry survives — and thrives — because it traffics in unvarnished honesty, and owns up to life’s tragedies as the only unavoidable roadblocks. Sex is arguably the greatest physical experience a man can have, but it’s never enough; it inhibits progress (can you get anything done with an erection?), and so many of us are so unremarkable at it that it’s enough to pop and depart before the sheets get cold. Women will always run off with the wrong man, because in the end, they want to have fun much more than they want to wallow in your self-aggrandizement. All artists seek to be remembered, even if Woody will have us believe that he’d rather achieve immortality by not dying. And yes, we’re all a little out of focus, and rather than direct the need for change inward, we force everyone else to put on glasses and adjust to our increasingly incoherent perspective. It’s always you, not me, even if I know what a bastard I really am. But more than all that, there really is nothing more inspired than a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah, which is exactly how I would have done it had I been a little Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn. What better way to reduce one of those pesky traditions to the commercialized joke it deserves to be? Because it doesn’t last, folks, and we’re still going to die. So indulge — be like Harry — and leave the decency and selflessness to the winds.







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