Film Forum’s Essentially Woody series comes to a screeching halt, leaving tire-marks (and a whiff of sulfur, courtesy of Satan himself), with 1997’s surprisingly excoriating and properly revolting Deconstructing Harry. Though its basic narrative framework initially makes it seem like another Wild Strawberries/8 1/2 retread (and thus another Another Woman/Stardust Memories, Harry is nevertheless possibly the closest cinematic approximation Woody has ever come to those caustic, slapdash humor compilations he published in the late Sixties—even more so than in his earlier anything-goes Groucho wannabes. It’s endlessly funny, but tuned to a darker channel, observant of people’s penchants for self-ruination. One year after the joyous movieness of Everyone Says I Love You, this is particularly shocking—not merely ribald, Deconstructing Harry is full of jokes spiked with pain, and they come at such a clip that a proper reaction might be to shield yourself from the nakedness.
If this is Borscht Belt comedy, it feels a lot closer to that of Don Rickles than traditional Woody—starting with Julia Louis-Dreyfus giving Richard Benjamin a “chewy” blowjob and then him giving her a rear-entry quick fuck in front of her blind grandmother, and climaxing with a literal trip to hell, overflowing with pitch-forked demons, busty naked women in pits of lava, and aluminum-siding salesmen, Harry means to bare all in its depiction of a writer named Harry Block, who has turned every single person in his life (save his young son, a sassy hooker, and a suicidal friend) against him by spinning their real miseries into comic gold on the page. While Woody has consistently denied that this film is autobiographical, there’s an essential distrust of the artistic process here, as well as a paranoia about others’ perceptions of the artist and his profession being somehow opposed to human connection, that betray any distancing effect: it’s rough stuff for any artist to admit, and there’s less self-delusion in it than in any Woody film, save Husbands and Wives.
When Block is tagged for an honorary award from his alma mater (which he was thrown out of, incidentally), he sets out on the road with his ignoble entourage, and the film weaves in and out of flashbacks of his past relationships and grievances, staged moments from his own fictional works, which often include inverted versions of people from his real-life, and some tossed-off fantastical sketch-comic asides, which include Tobey Maguire as a wannabe playboy “schmuck” visited by Death (shades of Woody’s story ‘Death Knocks’ from Getting Even, which in turn was a riff on Seventh Seal, natch), and Robin Williams’s delightfully subdued Mel, who wakes up one morning to find himself literally out of focus (the prolonged joke’s clever, poignant punchline is that he refuses to adjust himself, while his family, forced to buy prescription glasses to see him, must change themselves to fit his distortion). It’s a constant, disorienting zig zag in and out of reality, with jokes both high and incredibly low (the dyslexia-tampon comment instantly comes to mind).
Most refreshing is that Woody doesn’t make Harry out to be merely misunderstood, or at least, troubled in his personal life . . . this is a New Yorker’s tale, and this guy is a therapist’s worst nightmare, an Alvy without an Annie, a Mickey Sachs without Dianne Wiest’s Holly, funneling his depression and rage into an endless parade of hostile, self-loathing, misogynistic fiction. Those opening credits, traditional white on black, but interrupted by repeating images of Judy Davis frantically exiting a cab, foretell of a jagged, angry narrative, and the film doesn’t compromise, even as it wants us to laugh. Harry leads to a touching conclusion, marked at least by his own self-awareness, but it’s far from a traditional narrative of redemption. Curb Your Enthusiasm is kid’s stuff compared to this.