Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mighty Aphrodite

Mighty Aphrodite is simultaneously a departure and a re-visitation of familiar material for Woody Allen. The story is typical Allen in many ways, and the film's opening in particular comes across as a rather dull, plodding pastiche of his past films. Allen plays the sportswriter Lenny, who adores his pretty, intelligent wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) but nevertheless finds their marriage growing sour and stale. The couple's decision to adopt a child gives them a son and briefly distracts them from their difficulties, but by the time the boy has grown a few years, the couple is drifting apart again. Despite the addition of a child in a more central place than usual, this is well-trod ground for Allen: the intellectual couple whose passion for each other dims over time, leading inevitably to affairs and depression. Perhaps recognizing this material's familiarity, Allen speeds through it in the film's opening twenty minutes, which come across as a shorthand, montaged highlight reel, much of the story told in brief scenes and images accompanied by minimal dialogue. The film is livened up by Lenny's decision to seek out his adopted son's birth mother, using a perverted twist of logic that echoes Allen's own troubles with adopted kids and mothers. It's tempting to read the film in some respects as a public working-out of some of Woody's thoughts about these issues. In any case, in the midst of his marital difficulties Lenny realizes that since his son is so great — very smart, good-mannered, handsome, and fun — then the kid's birth mother must be a wonder as well. He seeks her out not so much out of curiosity or for his son's sake, but with expectant, unarticulated sexual desire already on his mind.

Of course, things don't play out as he expected, and the kid's mother turns out to be the vulgar, frankly sexual, and tacky Linda (Mira Sorvino), who works double duty as a porn actress and hooker while aspiring to Broadway fame. Linda is a pure jolt of energy to the soporific opening scenes, and Sorvino's kitschy, brilliant performance is reminiscent of Mia Farrow's very similar turn in Broadway Danny Rose, where her crude gangster's moll also played off Woody's nebbish persona. Sorvino's perfect for the role, squeezing herself into form-fitting clothes that show off her statuesque physique, and gasping her lines with a squeaky, high-pitched rasp that's half Minnie Mouse and half Marisa Tomei from My Cousin Vinny. Her voice is like an instrument here, albeit an instrument a few keys out of tune. She always sounds out of breath, her words tumbling over each other, that nasal whine sounding like the screech of brakes before a ten-car pileup. It's a masterful performance, evoking earlier Woody characters — not only Farrow's part in Danny Rose but Jennifer Tilly as the inept actress in Bullets Over Broadway — but making it wholly her own.

Despite these antecedents, the character is rather different from anyone in earlier Woody movies, in her frank acceptance of sexuality (like the scene where she describes a particularly graphic porn shoot and ends with the exclamation "I like acting!") and her subtle blend of slow-witted obliviousness with street-smart common sense. The writing seems focused in different places than usual, as well. Unlike Woody's discontented husbands in earlier films, Lenny is not really looking for an affair, and this becomes even more true once he meets Linda. She inspires in him, not sexual feelings, despite her attractiveness, but fatherly caring and a desire to help her out. He admonishes her not to sell her body, to give up her unrealistic acting dreams and settle down into a conventional life: a husband, a family, a respectable career. Even as his own marriage falls apart around him, as his bored wife focuses on her own career and flirts with having a real affair, Lenny throws himself into helping out Linda, becoming a platonic friend to her. That he eventually does sleep with her is just one more of the film's interesting echoes of Allen's personal life, as this paternal relationship develops, if only briefly, into something else. It's not so much an attempt to apologize, but an acknowledgment that the best intentions can go awry and be perverted by either fate or character flaws. Lenny is never able to really help Linda, and his earnest efforts only cause more problems for both of them.

This is not the only way in which Mighty Aphrodite sets itself apart from earlier Woody films. The director is also playfully experimenting here with the form and structure of the Greek tragedy, indulging in his love of metafictional devices to draw parallels between literature and life. The film opens with what seems at first like an absurd non-sequitur, as a group of somberly dressed ancients in stone masks ascend to the stage of a crumbling amphitheater and recite, in chorus, a portentous speech about destiny. This formal, stylized opening cuts directly to a scene in a New York restaurant, where Lenny and Amanda are discussing having a child; the tension between the ornate language of the Greek chorus and the direct, casual dialogue of the main characters helps establish the film's interaction between old and new forms of storytelling. Woody gets a lot of mileage out of this device.

The opening scene is played almost completely straight, used as a deliberate subversion of expectations, but subsequent appearances of the Greek chorus become funnier and funnier, as the group comments on the action, directly warns Lenny about the likely consequences of his actions, and draws parallels between Lenny's troubles and older dramas like the story of Oedipus. This fable, with its characters who are ironically unaware of what they're doing and who fulfill their fates through ignorance, is directly related to the intertwined destinies of Lenny and Linda. The characters of the Oedipus tale thus appear to Lenny along with the Greek chorus, bringing together past and present, fiction and reality. Sometimes, without explanation, Lenny appears in the amphitheater with the chorus, and sometimes they come to him. In one scene, the chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham) comes to see Lenny as he talks on the phone with Linda for the first time. The chorus leader attempts to talk him out of it, but soon hands Lenny a pencil from offscreen and reaches a hand out to hold the paper still as he writes. It's subtly funny, breaking the fourth wall in the most casual and innocuous of ways, with the hand of the narrator reaching across the bottom of the frame and lending some help.

In other scenes, the breaking of narrative logic is more intrusive, as in the offhand way that a blind seer steps into the film to tell Lenny that his wife is cheating on him. The chorus thus works as both a comical punctuation and an active agent in the film's construction, dispensing narrative information when it's needed as well as providing the meta-commentary that discusses the film's themes of fate and choice. As usual in Woody's films, the determinist point of view is privileged even if God remains absent. In fact, he's literally absent here, or at least out for the day. At one point, the Greek chorus calls out to Zeus in exasperation, falling collectively to their knees and asking for help — unfortunately, they get Zeus' machine and have to leave a message. "Call us when you get in," they sigh in unison, but as far as the film is concerned he never does. The closest the film gets to God is the deus ex machina (wryly announced as such in voiceover) that finally gives Linda the life she wants for herself. The film gives its characters room to move, to make decisions for themselves, but always emphasizes the elements of chance and uncontrollable circumstances that also contribute to each life's direction. The film's characters are all acting with uncertainty and incomplete knowledge; each of them is missing key information about the others, and the narrative is rich in underplayed but still obvious irony. Mighty Aphrodite is an interesting film from Woody, a flawed and experimental work that wouldn't rank among the director's best comedies but still has more than enough to recommend it.

1 comment:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Woody's mixture of lowbrow antics and highbrow Greek chorus is remindful of Jack Buchanan's first scene in The Band Wagon.