Woody's Kids

By now Woody Allen has made so many movies that their individual identities blur. He's no longer the maker of films, but the author of a body of work — the latest addition to which, Mighty Aphrodite, is like an echo chamber reverberating with the themes and obsessions (not to mention jokes) Allen has been kneading for the past 30 years. The movie's opening credits signal continuity; they're the same typeface and in the same style as Annie Hall's, 18 years ago. It's the cinematic equivalent of a leatherbound set of books. Woody Allen means to be remembered.

Mighty Aphrodite will not change anyone's opinion about Allen. Like it or not, it's more of the same, another chapter in the ongoing opus of a certain sort of modern Manhattan life (his). The characters bubble over with bright, knowing talk; they're all gallery owners or writers or culture vultures, and they all seem to have money, material comfort, and reasons to drive their late-model European cars out to the Hamptons for the weekend.

A friend of mine dismissed the movie: “Woody Allen lives in a bubble.” Yes, he does, I said, but so does everyone else. It's true that the trappings of Allen's films have become markedly bourgeois over the years. In Mighty Aphrodite, even the lowly hooker drinks a good chardonnay, and the Weinribs (Woody plays Lenny, the feckless patriarch) have a restaurant-size refrigerator in the snazzy kitchen of their Tribeca apartment.

But to criticize the film for the middle-class materialism of its characters is to miss the point. The strength of Woody Allen as a filmmaker has always been his willingness to examine his obsessions in public — sometimes an uncomfortable exercise, but one that gives his oeuvre a steady stream of emotional urgency. He is endlessly interested in the tangled relations between men and women, especially in marriage. In Aphrodite he folds in a new ingredient: the adopted child.

The would-be parents are Lenny and his wife, Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). He's opposed to adoption over procreation (“for the same reason we don't lease a car: pride of ownership”), but despite his putting his foot down, Amanda sets up the deal anyway. From Lenny's “No!” the scene cuts quickly to the Weinribs' living room, where Lenny purrs fulsomely to the baby in his arms. There is a discussion about what to name the child. (Lenny's suggestions include Groucho, Harpo, Sugar Ray, and Earl the Pearl.) After a characteristically manic exchange, the parents settle on Max.

Married couples are always itchy in Woody Allen films, and the Weinribs are no exception. Amanda secretly carries on an uncomfortable flirtation with a bug-eyed art dealer named Jerry Bender (Peter Weller, of Robocop fame), while Lenny succumbs to the temptation to track down the child's birth mother, Linda (Mira Sorvino).

She's beautiful and friendly — also a porn star and prostitute. “You've got that look on your face,” she tells Lenny.

“What look?”
“The look of a guy who hasn't had a good blow job in a while.”
“Oh, that look.”

Lenny's urge to play God in Linda's life meets with disapproval from the movie's wittiest device: a street-smart Greek chorus led by F. Murray Abraham, who gives a deft comic performance. The chorus' chantings, which alternate between stiff classicisms and in-your-face New York observations, urge Lenny to a less intrusive course with young Linda.

But Allen's characters can't help but play God, benevolently, and Lenny is merely the latest of their number. At the gym he meets a handsome young oaf named Kevin (Michael Rapaport), who's looking for a girl to take back to the family onion farm upstate. Kevin's ideas about marriage, while gently uttered, are like propaganda from the Christian Broadcasting Network. His wife, he tells Lenny, should like to cook and clean and sew and look after kids and “walk dogs and stuff.”

Linda doesn't quite fit the bill, but if you're playing God you don't worry about the minor incompatibilities. Lenny has decided that these two young people are made for one another, and with a grating artlessness he brings them together and leaves them at the mercy of their modest social skills.

It isn't clear why Lenny pushes this envelope so far, or why he can't see the obvious dangers of doing so. Perhaps, like Allen himself, he's just a restless tinker with the human heart — a man who, endearingly, must follow his curiosity even as the chorus warns him that “curiosity killed the cat.”

Mighty Aphrodite begins smoothly, but the plot convolutions eventually become tedious. Allen has always been a master at letting character drive plot, but here his characters seem to be trapped by the plot rather than living it, like rail cars following a path they can neither change nor leave.

The jokes, too, are not as fresh as they once were. Are there only so many wisecracks allotted to a person in one lifetime? Listening to Woody Allen's joking is like popping corn: You know that not every kernel will detonate, but there are so many kernels that you're bound to end up with a full bowl despite the duds.

Allen's turn toward adult seriousness has taken a lot of the pressure from his joking, so that smiling rather than laughing is not a disappointment. (Mighty Aphrodite holds more smiles than laughs, but plenty of laughs all the same.)

The seriousness also suits his formidable skills as a director. He's unsurpassed in his ability to photograph people as they speak his distinctive dialogues, the heart of all his movies. Whether shooting from behind a couch on which a man and a woman sit in conversation, or having the camera watch one face while another speaks off-camera, Allen understands like no one else how to align what we see with what we hear. (He also knows how to make New York look lovely — no small accomplishment.)

Woody Allen may indeed live — and work — in a bubble, but it's a bubble that continues to ride the twin currents of enchantment and understanding.

Mighty Aphrodite opens Fri, Oct. 27, at the Cinema 21 in

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