Woody Allen's on-and-off screen persona has become so well known that it's easy to forget that he's playing characters in his films. Let's face it, the guy has a very distinctive way of acting that doesn't really change from film to film, and he writes about personal subjects like love, sex and relationships so perceptively that it's hard to know where Woody stops and the character begins. In the case of Deconstructing Harry, Allen actively made the point of explaining that central character Harry Block was not him – good job really, because as one person tells him: "You're the worst person in the world."
Harry is a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, pill-popping writer with two failed marriages behind him. He's alienated many of his family and friends by putting thinly-disguised versions of them into his books, and on the eve of receiving an honour from his old university, is struggling to find anyone to go with. His old friend Richard (Bob Balaban) becomes available at the last minute, by which time Harry has hired a hooker called Cookie to accompany him. So the trio hit the road, snatching Harry's son en route from under the nose of his teacher.
It's easy to see why in this case the Harry/Woody line might be blurred, for this is a man who fills his books with his own life and experiences, and receives massive acclaim for it. Allen characters have always been flawed individuals, but it is still a shock to see him knock back so much alcohol and pills and hear him talk about "fucking" hookers and call his ex-wives (Kirstie Alley and Mariel Hemingway) "cunts". Harry has little defence for his behaviour, but has reached the point where real life and fiction are colliding, the characters from his books appearing before him to settle a few scores.
Allen the director takes a loose, scattershot approach to all this, with fractured editing mirroring the chaotic state of Harry's mind, and the film works far better as a comedy than as a drama. Passages from his books are presented as star-studded sketches – Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Robin Williams and Stanley Tucci all feature. But although some are very funny – Williams as an actor who literally goes out of focus, Maguire playing a sexaholic who swaps apartments with a friend to entertain a hooker and then has Death knocking upon his door – they leave the impression of short sketches that Allen had lying around, waiting for a movie he could work them into. Harry's trip to his old university is clearly inspired by Bergman's Wild Strawberries, but Harry ultimately learns little from his experiences, other than perhaps the need to lay off the booze.
There's plenty of recommend however, particularly in the performances. Billy Crystal sparkles as an old friend of Harry's who has stolen his latest girl (Elisabeth Shue) – in one delicious scene, Harry envisages Crystal as Satan, ruling over a fiery, orgiastic hell. Hazelle Goodman puts in a sweet performance as the hooker-with-a-heart; she's also the first black actor to have a major role in a Woody film. And there's one genuinely great dramatic scene, in which Harry and his estranged Jewish orthodox sister sister (Caroline Aaron) argue about each other's approach to their faith, Harry having long abandoned Judaism in place of baser pursuits. It's no classic, but Deconstructing Harry has more laughs than other recent Allen films, and the raunchy content provides an edge we see all too little of from the director these days.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.