Every Friday, our resident film fanatic Alex Aciman will dig deep into the pile of cinematic masterpieces and fish out one forgotten classic you should watch soonest.
Deconstructing Harry is the best Woody Allen movie you’ve probably never seen.
This late-’90s gem is the story of frenzied, neurotic writer Harry Block, who is unable to finish his next book and worries that his career is behind him. This subject isn’t exactly new material for Woody Allen, but in this film the life of a writer is shown without glamour; instead we see the constant toiling, the revising, the strange hours, the disappointment in one’s own ideas, and the disappointment in oneself.
Along the course of this film we meet characters from Harry Block’s stories. One of them is a woman who has discovered that her husband killed and ate his first wife. In another story, a film actor (played by Robin Williams) becomes out of focus in real life. Later in the film Block, succumbing to a panic attack, begins to go out of focus himself. It is a film that dips, at times, into the surreal. It feels as if it is the product of a different decade.
In fact, the true magic and genius of this film is its similarity to Fellini’s 8½—the semi-autobiographical story of a director who cannot finish his latest film and whose life begins falling apart. Yes, the story goes that Deconstructing Harry was modeled after Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. But what Allen captures in Deconstructing Harry is a warmth that suffuses every part of the film, making his work inexplicably tender even when tragic, and almost nihilist even when slapstick funny. This strange duality seems to exist exclusively in Italian art; Deconstructing Harry follows in this tradition and thrives on this rare mix of wisdom and humor, in large part due to its deeply profane and ironic sensibility. Sex and writing, for example, are treated like the most important things in life, whereas death is greeted with an enigmatic shrug. People die, so what? But to be interrupted while writing, or for a sex worker to misunderstand what exactly it is that you want, well, what a disaster.
Ultimately, like 8½, this is a film about art and the importance of art for the artist. And part of what makes Deconstructing Harry so great and so moving is that it treats the subject of art with affection rather than pretension. The absence of didacticism, moralizing, and grandstanding in a movie about art is so very rare. There is a rumor that during the filming of his masterpiece Fellini had to constantly remind himself that 8½ was meant to be a comedy. This kind of irony and vulnerability are matched only by Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry.
Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.