There is a moment in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry when the despicable title character (Allen) casually exchanges tales of dirty deeds with the Devil (Billy Crystal). “Who’s worse than me?” Harry asks at one point to the prostitute he has brought to his honorary doctorate ceremony. He must admit that Hitler was probably worse.
This is one of Allen’s funniest movies, made decades after his so-called funny period ended. The movie itself is not much deeper than Harry, the selfish philandering writer who cheats and writes about the people in his life, exaggerating their worst sides, but it doesn’t have to be deeper to be successful. There are multiple times when a woman bursts into his home and threatens to kill Harry. He always acts surprised and defensive. “What? Why are you hysterical?” At first these are scenes of tension, but by the end they become just another set of miserable acts by this pitiable low-life.
I say pitiable because Allen’s Harry seems to know what a dirtbag he is, he has no pride. This makes him tolerable. An hour and a half of a man this low who had no remorse would be a bit much. But give the man some remorse, just not enough to change his ways at all, well, that’s funny. We see Harry’s life in flashback and also in his stories in which he hardly bothers to change the names of the people he’s exposing (Jane become Janet, for example). This gives the opportunity for some very good celebrity cameos, none funnier than Robin Williams as an actor who goes out of focus…in real life.
Allen is a devotee of Fellini and this may be his most Felliniesque film, even more so than some direct homages (Allen is also a Bergman nut and the structure of following a man revisiting his life on his way to being honored by his alma mater is taken from Wild Strawberries). We see the creator harassed by real life, his past, and at times, his creations. If Allen doesn’t have Fellini’s ability to wring meaning from his shallow characters, he’s not alone. Deconstructing Harry also resembles Mel Brooks’ most vulgar films in it’s breakneck desire to make us laugh by any means necessary and nobody complained about lack of meaning in a Mel Brooks movie. It doesn’t take long to deconstruct Harry (we learn he’s a schmuck fairly quickly) but that’s part of the fun of it. How low can this guy go?