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BUILDING UP WOODY

As Jane Austen might have had it "and so, dear reader, he married her."

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn were wed in Venice last week, thereby knocking a few years of tabloid outrage and exploitation into a cocked hat. The Reconstructing Woody Project that reached its movie height with "Deconstructing Harry" was then completed with some "I do's" on a Venetian canal.

Let Mia and her raging coffee klatsch call him a cradle-robbing pervert now. Let TV talk-jockeys like Bill Maher point out the obvious fact that it's usually considered bad form to forage the family dinner table for dates.

It was one thing for Woody Allen to take nude pictures of Soon-Yi Previn and leave them on the mantle to be discovered by her adopted mother (and his longtime lover) Mia Farrow. It's another to actually marry the young woman.

Woody Allen clearly wants his serious reputation back. And he seems to be willing to do anything to get it.

Exhibit B -- after the sudden nuptials -- is his movie "Deconstructing Harry" opening locally on Friday. It's one of his funniest movies ever, I think. It's his raunchiest by far (it makes "Mighty Aphrodite" seem positively demure by comparison.) And it's probably his most brilliant movie since "Zelig."

And with all that going in, it's also, I think, the most revealingly repellent movie he's ever made.

What he's done in his semi-disgrace that is so brilliant is that he has re-imagined himself as a New York Jewish writer very much like Philip Roth, a man whose reputation and career describes roughly the same arc and whose social and intellectual circles are, to put it mildly, contiguous with Woody Allen's. Their public careers started at roughly the same time. (Woody was nominated for an Emmy at about the same time as Roth's story collection "Goodbye, Columbus" was receiving plaudits.)

And their public trials-by-ex coincided roughly -- Allen's much-tabloided odyssey with longtime lover Mia Farrow (who later demolished him in her memoir) and Roth's near-annihilation by his ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, in her memoir.

Bloom, you remember, appeared in Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," shortly before it all hit the fan. (Wheels within wheels within wheels.)

So what the great nebbish comic and pluperfect joke writer of American movies did was to give his character, Harry, a lot of the Rothian tone and Rothian reputation. He has brilliantly re-imagined himself, then, as a kind of Philip Roth, another fellow-sufferer in need of public reclamation. He plays the part himself and he shows Harry's philandering, self-absorbed, pill-popping life and then the fictional versions that
Harry concocts in his novels and short stories.

Each new fictional variation comes with different actors to play himself and the women in his life. One of Harry's alter egos is played by Stanley Tucci, an actor who is, in certain lights, a dead ringer, physically, for Philip Roth.

Some of those stories have the careening brilliance of the old Woody -- the one who wrote the pieces in "Without Feathers" and "Side Effects" and the movie "Zelig." The most conspicuously inventive one stars Robin Williams as a man who feels out of focus and who, as seen in the film, is indeed out of focus wherever he goes.

This is life imitating art imitating life imitating art, etc. It's wild and intricate and never loses you for a second.

Nor is Roth the only Jewish American writer alluded to in "Deconstructing Harry." You don't have to look all that hard to find allusions to Malamud and even an obscure writer named Wallace Markfield (whose novel "To An Early Grave" may have provided Woody with veiled inspiration for the road-trip-with-a-corpse in "Deconstructing Harry").

I can't stress enough how playfully and ingeniously all this is worked out in "Deconstructing Harry". I think he has been given inadequate credit for the brilliance of that part of the film.

With all that fancy-schmancy alluding going on, it's also belly-laugh funny. There is an all-stops-out scene between Harry and Kirstie Alley -- who plays one of his wives -- that is hilarious. If it should turn out that it wins Alley a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (those things sometimes happen to Woody's actresses) it might even be justice. As it is, I would certainly hope she gets a nice round and fully packed Oscar nomination out of it.

Many of the lines are gems. ("The most beautiful words in the English language are not 'I love you' but 'it's benign.' ") And, as always, his cast is a convocation of the big and the renowned pleased as punch to be working with him, even at bargain basement fees: Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis (wonderful as always), Richard Benjamin, Elizabeth Shue, etc. And if it makes you nervous to see Woody at 62 nuzzling a 36-year old Shue as his girlfriend, his recent wedding must seem appalling.

It's when you stop laughing and admiring and start thinking that the movie might make you gag.

Harry excuses his grievous and constant inflictions of pain by saying, "I can't function in the world" the way a small child might complain that he doesn't yet know how to tie his shoes. The tone is much the same.

No surprise. That's been the innermost tone of most of Woody Allen's life work, thus far.

If you want to see how repellently hypocritical and self-deluded this self-justifying work is in its heart of hearts, allow me to direct your gaze to two little out-of-the-way corners:

1) Fine actress Hazelle Goodman, as the hooker Harry takes on a road trip with him and his young son back to his old college, where he's supposed to receive an award.

Consider this fact: In all his years of filmmaking in New York City, she is the first black actor he has ever had playing a major role. And she plays a wise-cracking sitcommy street hooker, hot pants and all.

This from the man whose films are full of jazz records and whose clarinet playing worships at the shrine of jazz musicians Edmond Hall and Sidney Bechet.

2) The way the actor who plays his son is treated in the film. He is, at best, a narrative prop -- a badminton birdie in an ongoing custody fight, a mirror for Harry to take along with him to his college award ceremony so that he can better bask in his career glory.

Once the kid has been established as a narrative prop -- and a set-up to a joke's punch-line -- he is then discarded as being of absolutely no narrative use whatsoever (while, the entire time, Woody's fictional writer Harry continues to wail about his lost custody).

Consider this fact: This is the same man who bitterly fought custody battles with Farrow over their children Satchell and Dylan.

So, when it's all over, Harry/Woody tells himself that it doesn't matter if his life is battlefield of self-absorptions and needlessly inflicted cruelties. It's the good work that counts.

Unless, of course, one were among Harry's walking wounded, in which case one might well wish that he'd go to hell.

Which, fine jokes aside, may just be where he's headed, if there is such a place.

Then again, Harry -- or Woody -- can always hope that the Greatest Author of Them All has no need for such a plot contrivance.

Review Deconstructin Harry Rating: **** Woody Allen's Film about a selfish, hard-drinking, pill-popping writer under siege. With Elizabeth Shue, Demi Moore, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Kirstie Alley and others. Written and directed by Allen. Rated R, Opening Friday in area theaters.

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