The Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

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Woody Allen plays Lenny who plays God (Aphrodite, not God God) in The Mighty Aphrodite.  Lenny is married to Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), and they decide to adopt a son, but only after arguing back and forth about it, indicating a growing rift in their marriage.

Max, their son, is so smart and has such a great sense of humor that not only does Lenny love him to death, but he’s driven to know who this kid’s biological mother is.  This drives him to locate Linda (Mira Sorvino) and get to know her.  To Lenny’s dismay, she is a sex worker.

So Lenny dedicates time to her to make her life better.  He believes he’s doing it for Max’s sake, knowing that when Max is older he will want to track down his biological mother, and, well, Lenny is ashamed of where his son came from.

Lenny grows closer to Linda, particularly after learning that she’s devastated that she gave away her son, and it haunts her every day.

So Lenny helps her out.  He becomes a friend first, and then helps her get out from under her manager (read: pimp) by getting the manager courtside Knicks tickets.

Later he sets her up on an ill-fated date with a boxer named Kevin (Michael Rapaport) by lying to both parties about who the other person really is (personality, profession, etc.).  The date goes well, but when Kevin learns of Linda’s past, he hits her, leaving her broken and alone.  That’s when Linda and Lenny sleep together, naturally.

There is a fine line, or no line at all, between Lenny’s role as a father-figure and as a love interest.  Frankly, it’s a little unnerving, as you try to figure out where he stands on that spectrum.  Okay, so it’s not a spectrum, but to Lenny it seems to be.  He meets her and we think he might be sexually attracted to her, because why wouldn’t he be?  But his paternal instincts quickly take over and they develop that father-daughter bond.  It’s heartwarming, and he helps her improve her lot in life.  Then they sleep together, and it turns everything upside down.

Immediately after, though, Lenny realizes how much he loves his wife, Amanda, who was busy having her own affair.  In this way it’s very similar to the end of Bullets Over Broadway in which both characters have their own affairs and then reconcile at the end, just like that.

So Lenny and Amanda reunite their happy family with Max, and Linda leaves town.  Then, in the middle of the road somewhere, a helicopter lands, a handsome man gets out and they fall in love and get married.

The film, I should mention, starts and ends with a Greek Chorus.  Throughout the story, the chorus even enters the real world, often telling Lenny he’s not acting rationally.  It’s his conscience, and they also tell him that he’s playing God by trying to orchestrate the relationship between Linda and Kevin.  That’s where the title comes from.  Aphrodite is the god of love, and that must mean something beyond the failed date Lenny orchestrates.

There’s no intervention of a higher power in this story.  It’s Lenny who’s taking action and putting people together.  When he and Linda sleep together, they conceive a child though Lenny never knows this.  He enters Linda’s life, and he gives her love (whether it’s with Lenny himself, her son or her eventual run in with her husband).  Linda’s life is permanently changed for the better when Lenny forces his way in.

The chorus is just a different form of voice over.  We’re often given glimpses inside Woody’s head.  In Annie Hall, the film began with Woody as Alvy Singer talking directly to the camera.  In either case, the effect is the same.  We’re allowed to know where Woody is coming from and what drives his actions.

Most of his films are like this.  There might be a better way to get inside the character’s head, but the point is to get inside.  It doesn’t matter how he does it, Woody just lays it out like, “here’s what’s going on and what you need to know in order for the story to begin.”

That’s important because most of his films involve characters who have been in a situation for sometime and now want a sudden change.  Lenny’s relationship with Amanda doesn’t seem particularly strong, and they both stray, but they’ve also been together for years.  Something must have held them together.

So the voice over/greek chorus comes in to tell us why Woody’s surrogate is feeling this way.  In The Mighty Aphrodite, the chorus tells us (in unison) that even the strongest bonds fade over time.  It’s a simplistic view of marriage, that they might all end unless drastic action is taken, but that’s the case in most of Allen’s films.  Fortunately, it’s resolved, showing that bonds may be tested, but if the foundation is there, they can recover.  It’s what happens in The Mighty AphroditeA Midsummer Night’s Sex ComedyManhattan Murder Mystery and probably some others.

This film was released in 1995 when Woody Allen was 6o years old.  His wife is played by Helena Bonham Carter who was 29 at the time.  Similarly, Linda is played by Mira Sorvino, 28 at the time.

Lenny as a character is similar to many other Allen films, such that he could be placed in a number of his previous films.  He has the same concerns, mainly his relationship and a desire for another woman.  It’s just odd that now he’s about 60 years old and telling largely the same story.

I anticipate that Allen is in fewer and fewer of his films as his career goes on (I’m still not very familiar with any of his films between this and the mid 2000s), and it will be interesting to see what kinds of roles he plays in the ones in which he does act.

I never got the impression that age was an issue in The Mighty Aphrodite.  It was never brought up as a concern that Lenny is so much older than Amanda.  In the movie universe they might as well be the same age.  At least in Manhattan, Isaac expressed guilt over his age difference with Tracy.  It’s not even brought up here, and I was never sure if the viewer was supposed to be aware of it.  In that way it’s similar to Tyler Perry.  Here me out.

Tyler Perry makes films with entirely black casts.  He does this to take race completely out of the picture, and though it’s a commendable idea, his films are not that good.  But I don’t know if they’re supposed to be good.  They’re supposed to make money, like any other studio, and Tyler Perry has his own.  So he’s not just a filmmaker, but he’s also a studio head, essentially.

In his films, the conflict is often character-driven, much like Woody Allen (I think, to be honest, I’ve only seen one Tyler Perry film).  In that one TP film, though, characters started together, then they were separated (emotionally, spiritually), and they were reunited in the end.  The story is very life affirming.

The Mighty Aphrodite felt largely the same way, but instead of race, the thing it avoided addressing was the age difference.  By making Lenny a 60 year old Woody Allen, it allows you to imagine nearly anyone in that role.  That would be like releasing a romantic comedy right now with Blake Lively starring opposite Steve Buscemi.  Imagine a studio executive looking at the casting and signing off.

Woody casts himself because he can, and I guess it works.  I enjoyed the film overall.  It’s a trend, him casting himself in his films.  You don’t expect the movie hero to be this small, neurotic man who shrivels in the face of danger and is scared of or has disdain for nearly everything.  It speaks to that person within all of us, and we all have that person.  So I think it’s something many people can identify with, and it empowers our imperfections.  A film like The Mighty Aphrodite does the same thing.  It’s saying you can have this crazy adventure no matter what type of person you are or how old you are.  It’s a declaration of sorts that this stuff doesn’t matter.  It’s a breakdown of societal roles.

Or maybe Woody Allen just enjoys acting in his own films.

In Manhattan Murder Mystery, age was important.  Whereas in Aphrodite the screenplay could have read “LENNY (30s)” in the scene description just as easily as it could have read “LENNY (WOODY ALLEN MODERN DAY),” in Manhattan Murder Mystery the character’s ages were important.  Larry and Carol were old enough to have a son in college, and Carol particularly sought out the murder mystery adventure because she feared she might be getting too old for many more of those kinds of exciting, unpredictable journeys in life.

So I guess I like that Lenny was a 60 year old Woody Allen, because it’s reaffirming that you can be anything.  The characters he plays are never deterred by their physical limits, whether it’s height or age.  They just act on things they want, but sometimes that gets them in trouble.  It’s also why in so many of his films he’s married to an attractive woman and has an enviable job (even if his character claims not to like it).  You look at that and say, “damn, well if Isaac/Alvy/Lenny (etc.) can do that, then maybe I can too.”

 

Or, again, maybe he just likes to act alongside younger woman.

Up Next: The 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962)

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