”I’m always thinking of f—ing every woman I meet.” That might not be too shocking a statement coming from, say, David Lee Roth in 1982, but out of the mouth of Woody Allen it gives you quite a start. In Deconstructing Harry (Fine Line), Allen, playing a famous Manhattan novelist named Harry Block, says and does many things he has never said or done before. A scoundrel of self-gratification, Harry is committed to his sex life, his work, and not a hell of a lot else. He’s the kind of man who will always put his immediate desires ahead of everyone around him—ahead, even, of his own happiness. Harry guzzles whiskey and pops pills, screws around on his girlfriends and wives, and sleeps with whores because he finds the impersonality sexy. He’s a bit kinky, too—when a hooker comes over, he asks to be tied up and beaten before receiving oral sex. Harry would be a complete loser if it weren’t for one thing: He’s a wizard at packaging his selfish compulsions into fiction. A sleaze at life, he uses his outsize hungers to feed his art.
Deconstructing Harry is Woody Allen’s naughty-boy confessional movie, a disquietingly candid and funny portrait of a pathological narcissist. What’s most shocking about the film isn’t the rudeness (or lewdness) of Harry’s behavior. It’s how neatly his lecherous obsessions interlock with the familiar contours of the Allen persona. This is the story of a man who, beneath it all, cannot love, and that, when you think about it, is what Woody has been telling us about himself for 20 years. (Annie Hall was the first romantic comedy about two people falling not quite in love.)
Allen weaves bits of Harry’s stories into the pivotal events of his life, and Harry’s fictional characters keep stepping off the page to counsel him. Deconstructing Harry has a wittily crafted sense of play. At one point, Harry even visits a fleshpot version of hell (only in a Woody Allen movie would hell be run by Billy Crystal). Yet we also see the desperation of his existence in pitiless detail. As the various women Harry seduces, cleaves to, and betrays, Judy Davis, Elisabeth Shue, Demi Moore, and Kirstie Alley run through dazzling arpeggios of rage, despair, and defiance. In the wake of Allen’s infamous tabloid scandal, this marks the first time he has scraped off any lingering hints of romantic self-justification—the coy, aren’t-I-adorable-in-my-neurosis pleas for understanding that made Husbands and Wives so much less cutting than it wanted to be. Some may view Deconstructing Harry as a stunt, and an ugly one at that, but I think it’s Allen’s most bracing movie of the ’90s. A-