Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen goes to hell.

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In his 1999 film Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen plays a novelist who has written a book about family and friends and bared everything about his affair with his third wife's sister. Harry abducts his nine-year-old son from school to take him on a ride with the prostitute-du-jour to his alma mater, which is honoring him. Allen mocks wryly the adulation of academics as well as the murderous scorn of those who have been betrayed.

His point is that the feelings of sycophants and friends and even family do not matter much in the scheme of things, anyway. What matters is whether the literary characters created are varied and real and interesting enough to comprise a worthy audience to the foibles and frustrations of the writer.

Harry & His Sins

Deconstructing Harry is the most imaginative and in many ways the most pathetic (that is, affecting) of Allen's films. Though it drags at points, it generally flows quite artfully from the real-life sins of Harry to their glorification or rationalization in some of his short stories.

scene from deconstructing harryThe short stories are Allen's most clever flourishes ever, and are truly works of art. They contain within them all the stereotypes of Jews and wholesale mockery of Judaism that have been the stock in trade of Allen's previous work. You get the same easy laughs at the expense of Jewish names (and even the name of the rescuer of Holocaust victims, Raoul Wallenberg). The stories show a brother- and sister-in-law engaging in quick sexual intercourse in front of a blind grandmother (in the tradition of Hannah And Her Sisters).

Yet, until the penultimate sequence--the one in, of all places, Hell--Allen manages to parody his own established formats with good humor.

Unprovoked Rants

What does not ring true here is Allen's suggestion that his rantings about Jewish life have provocation. Thus, in a sequence in which Harry has been accused by a religious relative of denying the Holocaust, he responds:

"Not only do I not deny the Holocaust [but] I think records are made to be broken." Needless to say (except perhaps to Woody Allen), no provocation could ever make such a line appropriate, and Allen himself seems to acknowledge that Harry's religious relatives don't deserve that kind of affrontery.

In one of the short story sequences, Allen depicts a female Jewish psychoanalyst who overnight becomes "Jewish with a ven­geance"--namely, religiously observant, much to the consternation of her husband. Out of fear of her "wrathful and vengeful God," she praises Him for everything, even reciting a prayer in bed over oral sex with her skeptical husband.

In the "real life" segment that parallels this story, Harry feels estranged from his sister, Doris, because she has become observant together with her husband, whom Harry resents. He tells them that religions are all private clubs that formulate concepts of "The Other" in order to determine whom to hate. Doris, for her part, decries Harry's religion of "nihilism, sarcasm, and orgasm."

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

Elliot B. Gertel is the rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and media critic for The Jewish Post and Opinion of Indianapolis.