B y S t a c e y R i c h t e r
BY NOW WE all know Woody Allen is embroiled in a mid-life crisis. We know he's a veteran of psychotherapy, that he lives in New York, that he likes young, confused women, he's a coward when confronted and also claustrophobic. We know this even without reading the tabloids because this is territory Allen covers in his work again and again. Sometimes going to the new Woody Allen movie is a little too much like going to the last Woody Allen movie. But after a string of uneven and sometimes predictable offerings, Allen has at last hit his stride and produced another funny, inventive film--Mighty Aphrodite.
Aphrodite is the story of a couple, played by Allen and Helena Bonham Carter, whose marriage has devolved into a stale, boring routine. Allen, hankering for some truth and authenticity, seeks out the natural mother of their adopted son and finds Linda (Mira Sorvino), an aspiring actress with an unforgettable stage name--Judy Cum. Her screen credits include titles like The Enchanted Pussy. She's also a hooker with, you guessed it, a heart of gold. Allen resists the temptation to sleep with her and instead sets about trying to change her, Pygmalion-fashion, into the kind of woman he thinks the mother of his son ought to be. The refreshingly direct and foul-mouthed Linda, in turn, teaches Woody a thing or two about vitality and love.
All of this may sound eerily familiar, like a cut-and-paste version of the last couple of Woody Allen movies. There's temptation by a younger woman (Husbands and Wives); there's excitement injected into boring middle- class lives by lower-class characters with heavy accents (Bullets Over Broadway); there's a dumb blonde with a peculiar voice (Bullets Over Broadway). But what makes Mighty Aphrodite different, and funny, is the wonderfully inventive addition of a Greek chorus.
Initially, the chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) behaves as a Greek chorus ought to--commenting, from a remote amphitheater, on the moral and ethical decisions of the characters. But after a while people in togas begin to stumble into the action of the film. Cassandra lurks behind a plant and warns Allen about the danger of fluctuating real estate values. Allen lunches at the Acropolis restaurant and carries around those blue take-out cups printed with Grecian friezes that are ubiquitous in New York. It's as though a little bit of the Upper West Side has infected the chorus, and a little bit of Grecian drama has infected the Upper West Side.
The plot, with its couplings and uncouplings, confused parentage and machines falling from the sky, is perfectly suited to the hair-pulling pathos of Greek drama. It's been a while since Allen has found such a suitable structure to hang his comedy on, and a relief that he finally has. Aphrodite also gets a boost from Sorvino as the sex kitten Linda. Her fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice is reminiscent of the Moll in Bullets Over Broadway, but Sorvino manages to make her character three-dimensional and sympathetic. Sorvino's on-screen presence, with its complexities and quirks, rivals Allen's own.
The only really troubling element of Aphrodite is the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as the wife. Allen plays a schleppy sportswriter. He's a nice, self-deprecating guy who wears dumpy corduroy coats. He's in his late fifties. Helena Bonham Carter plays his beautiful, young, gallery-owning wife. How does he do it? It seems as Allen gets older he acquires the ability in his films to charm ever younger and prettier girls. Everyone who isn't living under a rock knows Allen has a 21-year-old girlfriend in real life, but that doesn't make such a disparity of age and attractiveness any more believable on film. Allen doesn't even bother to comment on it. The hubris is overwhelming.
Overall though, Aphrodite is a success. Allen has often walked a fine line between mocking overwrought pretension and perpetrating it. In Mighty Aphrodite (as in Love and Death, a witty spoof of Ingmar Bergman's films), Allen hits just the right satirical notes. There is, of course, something horribly pretentious about a Greek chorus, but when that chorus starts reciting Woody Allen-style psychotherapy jokes in unison, the surreal silliness of it all wins you over. By the end, the dignity of the chorus has completely decayed and they've taken to singing saccharine show tunes. You'll be singing them still in the parking lot.
Mighty Aphrodite is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and Foothills (742-6174) theaters.
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