“I’m ODing on myself,” Harry (played by Woody Allen) says to a prostitute when he realizes he’s out of focus, literally.
Deconstructing Harry is the spiritual sequel to Stardust Memories, Allen’s 1980 film. Both stories involve Allen playing a well-known and celebrated artist who struggles with creativity and a little existentialism sprinkled on top.
In Stardust Memories, Sandy was a famous film director, and here Harry is a famous writer who takes stories from his personal life and adapts them into books.
We first meet Harry when an angry former paramour points a gun at him, furious at how much of their illicit affair he reveals in his latest book. Her name is Lucy, but her character’s name in Harry’s novel is Leslie. Funny enough, we meet Leslie before Lucy.
Throughout the film, we cut to old short stories Harry has written has he remembers them, much like how Sandy would recall old romances in Stardust Memories.
In the first of these recollections, we see the world Harry imagined in his well-received latest novel. His surrogate character, Ken, is taller and has a fuller head of hair.
In another short story, Tobey Maguire plays a young husband (very young) who isn’t attracted to his wife, so he hires a prostitute and uses his friend’s apartment while his friend is critically injured in the hospital. Everything goes well until death literally knocks on his door, mistaking him for his critically injured friend and demanding he come with him.
In therapy, Harry notes that this was a reflection of his sexual fears as a young man.
In another story, Robin Williams plays an actor who (again literally) goes out of focus and can’t figure out why. The resolution is to get his entire family to wear glasses so they can see him. In a pretty funny scene, Williams pleads for his son to wear the glasses, “DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE DADDY!” he says, exasperated.
Harry’s therapist, upon hearing this, tells Harry, “you expect the world to adjust to the distortion you’ve become.”
So in each of these vignettes, we get a glimpse further into Harry and the way his art reflects himself. It’s another commentary on the way Woody Allen is viewed in the media both as an artist and a public figure, particularly after the drama surrounding his break up with Mia Farrow and subsequent relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter.
Harry reiterates that he’s bad at life, yet he’s a good writer. Writing stories and characters just makes sense to him. Again, this is familiar to an audience that’s often so taken with Allen’s work and yet so questioning of his personal life. It’s something we as fans have to live with when it comes to certain artists, including Allen, Roman Polanski, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson, Bill Cosby (though that ship has sailed), and a host of others. Of course, their crimes all vary in severity from “I could do without him saying that one thing about [insert minority group of people]” to “I will never listen to another Bill Cosby album again.”
But to someone like Allen and other celebrities, no matter what they did or didn’t do, it’s got to be exhausting having your personal life so scrutinized.
In Deconstructing Harry, Harry openly admits to not having it together. He marries one woman, sleeps with that woman’s sister, and then he falls in love with a third woman who eventually leaves him for Larry, played by Billy Crystal. Harry isn’t happy with where he’s at, and he isn’t shy about telling people how bad he’s doing.
Now, Larry is very interesting. First of all, Harry and Larry rhyme, obviously, and Harry and Larry are friends. In addition, Billy Crystal played Harry in 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, which some people have likened to a rip off or, more politely, an homage to Allen’s 1977 film, Annie Hall. In either case, there’s a comparison drawn between Billy Crystal’s most famous character and Woody Allen’s most famous character.
They’re both neurotic, death-obsessed, and they’re witty fast-talkers. In this film, Harry loses his girlfriend to the younger Larry. It’s like a passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Larry tells Harry “I will never be the artist you are,” and that could be seen as Woody Allen telling the world that his films are better, but that doesn’t mean anything because Billy Crystal gets the girl in the end, and he’s a more well-adjusted person anyways. It’s Woody’s ego saying “I did it first, and I did it better, but you’re right, it’s your turn, so here you go. Plus, they (the world) seem to like you more anyway.”
Of course, I might be reading too far into this, but that’s how it came off to me.
Another thing about this film is just how many references there are to Allen’s previous films. I tried to keep a tally going as I watched it, so here goes: Harry tells his younger girlfriend, Fay, not to fall in love with him, echoing what Isaac told Tracy in Manhattan (1979). Additionally, Mariel Hemingway who played Tracy shows up in this film. Oh, and Fay is the student to Harry’s teacher, just like Allen’s character falling for his student in Husbands and Wives (1992). Another similarity to that film is the jarring editing style, often cutting before someone finishes speaking.
Harry sleeps with his sister’s wife, like Michael Caine’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Harry’s sister bitterly tells him, “I know what you think of me,” offering a similarly static sibling relationship to the one between Marion and her brother in Another Woman (1988).
Harry interacts with the characters he has created, similar to the way Tom Baxter came off the screen in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and interacted with the actor who played him.
Deconstructing Harry tells a bunch of smaller stories, almost like the sketches in 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Too Afraid to Ask. The short story with Tobey Maguire hiring a prostitute could easily be placed among the sketches in that film.
Harry joyfully narrates each of his short stories, like Joe in 1987’s Radio Days. In one of those short stories, an older woman learns that her husband once had an affair that got too complicated, so he killed his mistress and wife and entire family that time, even eating them to hide the evidence. This is similar (but more exaggerated) to the violent escalation in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). When the older woman tells this to her sister, her sister’s advice, comically, is to hear her husband out. There are two sides to every story.
Harry’s friend (played by Bob Balaban), is convinced he’s deathly ill so he goes to the doctor, similar to Woody’s character Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Lastly, Harry walks in on an imagined scene of his sister talking about him to her husband. It’s similar to scenes in Annie Hall and Crimes and Misdemeanors in which a character walks in on a memory of an interaction they could have never known about. Oh, and Woody turning blurry is slightly magical, like some of the elements (flight, invisibility, etc.) in Alice (1990).
Okay, so those are the references I noticed. Another thing I noticed is that Harry has a son, and anytime his characters have children, they’re always boys. In Crimes and Misdemeanors he had a niece, but that’s about the closest he gets to having a daughter that I can think of. I’m not sure what this suggests other than he can relate more to the boys in his stories because they’re often reflections of himself as a kid.
So, in terms of the story, Harry is set to be honored at the college that kicked him out way back when. He has no one to go to the ceremony with, and this is what makes him question everything in his life.
He runs into his friend (Balaban) and asks him to go, but he declines. Then Harry hires a prostitute, named Candy, and he pays her to go with him. Balaban shows up, saying he called Harry the night before letting him know he could come. So the three of them embark on the trip, and Harry kidnaps his son, so now it’s four of them.
On the way, Balaban’s character dies, and once they get to the university, Harry is arrested for kidnapping while Candy gets arrested for drug possession.
Harry is then bailed out of jail by Larry and Fay who have just gotten married. His first reaction isn’t relief or thanks, but instead he gets mad at them for going through with the marriage, taking it as a personal slight. He never gives up the fight, but he just gets too exhausted to carry on with it.
The last of Harry’s short films that we see is one in which Harry himself (getting rid of the thin veil, revealing that all his characters are just versions of himself) goes through the seven levels of hell to get his wife back from the devil who turns out to be Larry. Harry acknowledges that this story would be a good opportunity to take a bunch of cheap shots at people, and he goes through with it by declaring who’s in hell. For example, the sixth level of hell is reserved entirely for the media, and Larry’s devil reveals that he was a Hollywood Studio executive for two years.
Back home that night after Larry and Fay bail him out of jail, Harry has a dream in which he goes to the ceremony in his honor, but it’s hosted by all the characters he wrote and whom we met in his short stories. He then comes up with another character, a man who’s terrible at life but is a great writer. In other words, he comes up with the character of himself.
No matter what goes on in Allen’s personal life, it’s clear that he channels of a lot of himself into his work. He places himself in so many of his films that it’s hard not to read into many of them, particularly this one or Stardust Memories in which the character he plays has so many similarities to the public image of Woody Allen himself.
He’s also a workaholic. This is his 28th feature film that he wrote and directed. So whatever goes on in Allen’s life, he’s likely to turn it into a film.