Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen goes to hell.

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.

The 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.”

Yet there is something quite touching about the way that Allen communicates that Harry still regards his sister as a “wonderful kid” who has been as devoted to Harry as to her religious convictions. Allen definitely does not condemn Doris’s religious observance here, unlike his character, Harry. In fact, his critique of excessive observance for its own sake in the short story is rendered all the more authentic and effective by the tenderness he shows for Doris in clear criticism of Harry.

Although clever, the other short story sequences, particularly a nasty “exposé” of Harry’s parents, lack this knowing quality. The only other sequence that carries moral weight as a short story is an impressive allegory about an actor, nicely played by Robin Williams, who discovers that he is intrinsi­cally “out of focus.” As for the acting, Kirstie Ally is most effective as the mother of Harry’s son. Most of the other stars in the film, especially Billy Crystal, are used as exaggerations of persona for which they are well­ known, and which are already overdone, whether in Allen’s previous work or in their own.

The Elevator to Hell

By the end of the film, Allen convinces himself, and tries to snow us into believing, that the movie is about knowing one’s limitations, and getting on with one’s life. True, Deconstructing Harry demonstrates, in many ways, the most self-awareness of any of Allen’s films. But it is not a meditation on self-awareness. It is, rather, a deliberate choice and action on Allen’s part.

In one segment, half story and half daydream, Harry takes an elevator into Hell (the commentary in the elevator is delicious), and meets his father in Gehenna [a term used for the traditional Jewish equivalent of Hell]. Not surprisingly (for easy laughs in an Allen film), Dad is wearing a yarmulke. He has been consigned to Hell for being too critical of Harry (of course).

For a precious moment it seems that Harry will find closure and renewal and even achieve a kind of teshuvah (repentance). Instead, like an annoying old habit impeding and even discouraging growth and maturity and decency and awareness of responsi­bility, the Hell scene degenerates into Dad qua “religious” Jew rejecting the Heaven option (speaking for Allen?): “I am a Jew. We don’t believe in Heaven.” When Harry asks his Dad where he wants to go, the yarmulke-wearer says, “To a Chinese restaurant.” (Allen and the writers of the contemporaneous television series, The Nanny, seem to relish the same, tired, American Jewish jokes.)

In one fell swoop, then, Jewish beliefs in Heaven and in the sanctifying power of dietary disciplines are traded away–and for what? For the “ultimate one-liner” that follows–an off-color joke about Hadassah women. Again, a cheap Woody Allen remark about Jewish women and their largest and most accomplished philanthropic organization. In this movie, that crack is the definitive statement on Heaven and Hell–unlike the earlier pictures, where such references were little more than asides and stage whispers.

Right before our eyes, Allen chooses Hell–for Harry, for Harry’s dad (who represents previous generations), and for himself. Deconstructing Harry is not a commentary on bad decisions; it is a bad decision. It is a choice for Hell, and rejection of Heaven for the sake of two-or-three one-liners about Jews, Jewish women, and Hadassah.

One can’t help thinking of a saying from the Talmud: “In the Hereafter the Holy Blessed One will slay the evil impulse in the presence of the righteous and the wicked. To the righteous it will appear like a high mountain, to the wicked like a single hair. Both will weep. The righteous will weep and exclaim: ‘How were we able to subdue such a high mountain as this?’ The wicked will weep and exclaim: ‘How were we unable to subdue a single hair like this?” (Sukkah 52a).

Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).

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