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Opened: Thursday, December 25, 1997
Rated: R

Written & directed by Woody Allen

Starring Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci & Robin Williams

This film is on the Best of 1997 list.
"Deconstructing Harry"

I've always preferred Woody Allen's comedies to his sweet and sour dramas, but I was a little leery of "Deconstructing Harry" because of its highly commercial cast.

I didn't mind the all-star parade in last year's "Everyone Says I Love You." It was a musical so his A-list players were, by definition, making fools of themselves and thereby making the movie inherently funnier.

But this year, Allen's cast of highly-visible talent includes actors of middling, if not questionable, skill like Kirstie Alley and Demi Moore.

After "Deconstructing Harry" I will never question Allen's casting again. This is funny stuff, in large part because of the awkward casting. Alley plays a neurotic shrink of teetering sanity, a perfect role for her. Moore bashing through Jewish prayers as a born-again Orthodox Semite is caricature at its most ironic.

A clearly autobiographical parable (although Allen vehemently denies it), the movie stars Allen as Harry Block, his typically frumpy, writer-type character who has alienated every friend and his entire family by using their lives, very thinly disguised, as fodder for his sordid novels.

While touching often on Allen's favorite themes of religion, relationships and sexual guilt, the element that gives this movie its vivacity is Harry's over-active imagination, which often gets the better of him.

Throughout the narrative, episodes in Harry's discombobulated life are juxtaposed with metaphorical scene from his books. The practical upshot of this is that many different actors play the same roles -- some in Harry's real world and some in his stories -- giving us a glimpse of how he sees his loved ones and why they're so pissed at him.

Kirstie Alley is Harry's ex-wife, but Demi Moore plays her in the fictional parallels. Judy Davis and Julia Louis-Dreyfus both play Harry's mistress, one against Allen himself and the other against Richard Benjamin, as a fictitious version of Harry.

Stanley Tucci ("Big Night"), Tobey Maguire ("The Ice Storm") and Robin Williams also get to take cracks at variations on Harry.

The film revolves around Harry trying desperately to find one single friend to go with him on a day trip to his alma mater, where he is to accept an honorary scholarship. But because they've all come to loathe him every person he asks turns him down, each time triggering fictional episodes from his imagination.

Peppered with trademark moments of apathetic insanity (one scene takes place at a "Star Wars" themed Bar Mitzvah), each of these episodes is a crazy short story in itself.

In one Allen battles colleague Billy Crystal for the heart of aspiring writer Elisabeth Shue. As Harry sees it, Crystal is Satan in an air-conditioned Hell, complete with a jazz band and percolating hot tub.

The funniest segment features Robin Williams as an actor whose concentration is so shot that he has become truly out of focus -- a complete blur to everyone who looks at him.

That astute and hilarious metaphor is a prime example of why this is the best Woody Allen movie in 20 years. He literally deconstructs his anti-hero by exposing his hang-ups through the stories he writes. The script is, minute by minute, insightful, inquisitive and gloriously silly.

"Harry" has the flavor of Allen's classic comedies, tempered for a today's audience. The editing style harks of his 1970s movies, but the dialogue takes a post-modern turn with many of the characters swearing like sailors.

It's tempting to credit the foul language to Allen making a statement about society's saturation with casual cursing. However, it's just as possible that his conversation-writing got caught in the Quentin Tarantino riptide.

Either way, he has made it his own -- "Deconstructing Harry" is still 100 percent Woody Allen at his sardonic best.

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