When Harry Met Woody’s Shrink
After a long siege of courtroom controversy and tabloid scandal, the world may be divided on Woody Allen (people love him or hate him, and you don’t find many “no opinions”), but what does he think about himself? Deconstructing Harry is as close as he’s going to get to either an apology or a confession. With the great Annie Ross singing her jazz classic “Twisted” on the soundtrack, the stage is set. The movie that follows is so twisted that if this is the result of a lifetime of psychoanalysis, the man deserves a refund.
Woody and Harry are the same person-a mixed-up, neurotic, hysterical hypochondriac writer who uses people in his own life as characters, whether they like it or not. Harry and his books are metaphors for Woody and his films. Harry is an insatiable satyr with three ex-wives, six shrinks, many broken affairs, countless enemies and a severe case of writer’s block. Having just published a book “loosely based” on his affair with another neurotic (Judy Davis) whose life is wrecked by the revelations, Harry finds himself unhinged big time when she shows up waving a loaded gun. The rest of the movie shows Harry tortured by insomnia, sexual guilt, herpes and bankruptcy, both literal and spiritual. He even does some time in Bellevue hospital, retreating into his subconscious (the only safe haven) while the autobiographical details of his life get dramatized like sound bites, and an all-star cast, working for slave wages, play his victims.
In one cheesy nightmare that looks like a bad skit on Saturday Night Live , Harry even takes a trip to hell, where Billy Crystal appears as the devil to dish out punishments on a sulfurous set that resembles the old Plato’s Retreat sex club. “What did you do?” Harry asks a man condemned to eternal fire and brimstone. “I invented aluminum siding.” Woody is telling his critics that the degree of sin is in the eyes of the sinners, and winking at his fans at the same time. This movie should be reviewed by Mia Farrow.
Woody can’t win, and neither can Harry. His real-life models resent him for exploiting them for fun and profit. His characters hate him, too. Things really get confusing when the fictional characters enter the real picture and confront their creator while the people they’re based on dance around the ring like a third round with Jersey Joe Wolcott, and you don’t know who’s doing what to whom, or why. Among the miscast stars in cameos, both real and imaginary, are Demi Moore as a Jewish shrink (the casting disaster of the year), Elizabeth Shue as the girl suffering from a “premenstrual nuclear meltdown” he meets in an elevator on his way to another assignation with his ex-wife’s sister, and Mariel Hemingway, Stanley Tucci, Richard Benjamin, Amy Irving, Eric Bogosian and Kirstie Alley as also-rans. There is one very funny bit with Robin Williams as an actor who goes out of focus every time he appears (a movie star’s ultimate nightmare), and one not-so-funny bit with Harry and a black hooker who looks like the drag queen Lady Chablis in a limo with a corpse in the back.
A lot of it is uncharacteristically vulgar and smutty (Is Woody finally getting around to saying “Screw you”?), and some of it is painfully philosophical (Harry on his preference for whores: “You pay them, they come over to your house, and you don’t have to discuss Proust or films”). Pruning away the clutter, you finally go away with the working self-analysis that Woody-Harry is a success as an artist and a failure at life. The only alternative to suicide is to create more art and pray.
No point in deconstructing this darkest of Woody Allen movies, since it has no construction to begin with. Harry is a mess and so is the film. Woody admits he spends almost as much time on his psychiatrist’s couch as he does directing movies. I used to think he was working out his demons. Now I’m convinced he’s just dredging up more material. That’s O.K., I guess, but how long do the rest of us have to keep paying the bills?
Spielberg: Back to the Epic
Every few years, Steven Spielberg takes a vacation from dinosaurs and fairy-tale kids’ stuff to dedicate his enormous talents to a real movie with big themes and issues. This holiday season, it’s Amistad , a $40 million history lesson about slavery. It has the noblest of intentions. It’s impressive, sincere and politically correct. It’s also a colossal bore.
The Amistad was a Spanish slave ship on its way to Cuba in 1839 when 53 Africans revolted, slaughtering all but two of the white crew members, who betrayed them and landed them in Connecticut, where they were tried for mutiny and murder. Although the plight of these terrified people, who spoke no English, divided a country already on the brink of Civil War, the case is a mere footnote to history that isn’t taught in school. Mr. Spielberg, obsessed with righting all injustices that threaten the freedom of innocent people, now insists we relive every agonizing moment of that story. I don’t picture millions of holiday filmgoers lining up to do it.
The movie jumps around in time frames so confusing you may head to the nearest Toys “R” Us for escape. The long and numbing trial takes up a lot of time while various villains lay claim to the human cargo, and President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) complicates the legal process for fear of losing the Southern vote. The good guys who want to set them free are a wealthy black businessman (Morgan Freeman), a Christian abolitionist (Stellan Skarsgard) and a rookie real estate lawyer with no experience as a defense attorney (Matthew McConaughey) who regards the slaves as nothing more than an illegal transfer of stock. The slaves, baffled and terrified and treated like hogs on the way to the slaughterhouse, try to figure out what their captors are doing by looking at illustrations in the Bible. Eventually, they win, the case is appealed, and it takes former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) to argue their rights before the United States Supreme Court (seven of whose nine justices are slave owners themselves).
In the middle of all this dour legal mumbo jumbo, Mr. Spielberg cuts to flashbacks of the horrors on the Amistad . Scenes of men, women and children, stripped naked, shackled and weighted in irons, and thrown into the sea alive, are as wrenching as anything you’ve seen on film since Schindler’s List . But while the director’s concern with freedom and justice takes him from the camps at Auschwitz to the auction blocks of Africa, this is still a small story, and two and a half hours is too much time to tell it.
The African actors speak in native tongues without subtitles, creating more confusion. The American actors seem lost in their wigs and waistcoats. Morgan Freeman is especially wasted, and Matthew McConaughey is such a blank, he scarcely registers at all. (Is this an actor desperate for career rescue from 911, or what?) Meanwhile, why is it that all of these British thespians keep getting hired to play American Presidents? In every new role, Anthony Hopkins gets hammier. In his wrap-up “truth in democracy” speech, he’s got one eye on the camera and the other eye on that empty space on the shelf where he wants his next Oscar to be. Under the circumstances, the real scene-stealing star in Amistad is African newcomer Djimon Hounsou, who is forceful, commanding and captivating as Cinque, the free-born captive determined to stop at nothing to regain his status and dignity.
Amistad may have a theme similar to Schindler’s List , but it lacks the same universal appeal. It’s like one of those long, dull historical costume pageants at Williamsburg. It’s obviously something Mr. Spielberg had to get off his chest. It took him 13 years to do it, and it feels like 13 years watching it. I have great respect for him, for co-scripters David Franzoni and Steve Zaillian, for Debbie Allen and her indefatigable army of co-producers, and for all the slaves who are put through hell in the making of it. But there should be an Amistad contest-anyone who gets through two and a half hours of this sluggish epic wide-awake gets a prize.