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Film / Deconstructing Harry

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"Who are you?"
"It's me, Ken!"
"... Ken?"
"Look at this guy! You created me, now you doesn't recognize me?"

A 1997 comedy film written and directed by Woody Allen, who also heads an All-Star Cast including Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Billy Crystal, Jennifer Garner, Paul Giamatti, Amy Irving, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobey Maguire, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci, and Robin Williams.

Successful author Harry Block (Allen) has been routinely mining his real life for material. After his latest divorce, he's been dating a young fan of his work - who just left him. Now he has to deal with an upcoming trip to his alma mater, and some of his characters start checking up on him in real life. A pretty poignant case of Hard Truth Aesop follows.


  • Actor Allusion: Judy Davis' character (Lucy) is dealing with a broken marriage and being jilted for a younger woman; the same fate she suffered in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives a few years earlier.
  • Affably Evil: The Devil.
    "To Evil! It keeps things hummin'."
    • Arguably, the main character himself.
  • An Aesop: The real Aesop is that we usually don't know when we're happy, and even when we think we're miserable, not everything is bad.
  • Asian Hooker Stereotype: While the Asian prostitute is an extreme stereotype, her attitude, personality and accent are all purely American, which probably means she's just roleplaying the Trope.
  • Author Avatar: To some degree, each and every main character from Harry's stories resembles him. He gives up having an Author Avatar in his last story and admits that it's actually As Himself.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Doris has a lot of anger towards Harry, like turning her faith into a caricature in his novels, never bringing her nephew to see her, and generally being a moody asshole. However, when Harry isn't around, she softens and understands why he is why he is; it doesn't mean he doesn't piss her off with his attitude, but she still loves him as his sister.
  • Black Comedy: One of Harry's stories, "Max's Dark Secret". Max butchered his family with an axe, then ate them. Played for Laughs.
    Elsie: Whatever you do, first hear Max's side.
    Dolly: Max has a side?! He killed his family and eats them up, the man has a side?!
  • Brick Joke: One of Harry's (perhaps unfinished) short stories deals with an actor (Mel) going out of focus as he's shooting what appears to be a TV commercial. Later on, the same thing happens to Harry, in lieu of a panic attack.
  • The Cameo: Robin Williams as the out-of-focus actor, Tobey Maguire as a young Author Avatar.
  • Canon Sue: In-universe: "Ken", the main character in Harry's last novel, comes off as a charming, laid-back guy, all too happy to explain what went wrong in Harry's life. He's right every time.
    Harry: How do you know so much?
    Ken: Well... I'm just you. Thinly disguised. You gave me a little more maturity. And a different name.
    • On the other hand, "Helen", who is a shrewish fundamentalist in his stories, comes off just as intelligent and insightful.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Harvey decides to cheat on his wife with a prostitute, and to hide it, he uses his sick friend Murray's apartment and name while the latter is in the hospital. Unfortunately, Murray dies in the hospital, and the Grim Reaper shows up to claim Murray — at his apartment.
    Grim Reaper: I'm Death, and your name is on my list.
    Harvey: No, no, no. Wait a minute. You've made a mistake.
    Grim Reaper: You don't have a minute.
    Harvey: No, no, see, I'm not Mendel Birnb —
    Grim Reaper: (annoyed) Don't give me that bullshit! Look at your monogram. (points at Murray's bathrobe, which Harvey is wearing)
    Prostitute: (from bedroom) Mendel, who are you talking to?
    Harvey: (panicked) Stop calling me Mendel! I'm just using his pad!
    Grim Reaper: Right. They always have an excuse. Let's go. Move it, you little putz!
  • Captain Obvious:
    Harry: Lucy?
    Lucy: (seething) You schmuck! You bastard! I'd like to cut your head off.
    Harry: You're upset, right?
  • A Chat with Satan: An Affably Evil Satan who isn't above Poke the Poodle - he has air conditioning in Hell because "it fucks up the ozone layer!"
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Everyone in the film.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: In Harry's novel, Ken is having sex with Leslie at a time when they think everyone has left the house. Then his blind grandmother comes in, and he refuses to stop. They manage to escape undetected as she can't see them, but only narrowly.
  • Composite Character: Helen is a composite of Harry's ex-wife Joan's neurosis and his sister Doris (and her devout Judaism), and both negative traits played up.
    Doris: It's all over your book: "Jewish," "too Jewish," "professionally Jewish." You attributed it all to your ex-life Joan but you gave her the details of my life because you wanted to depict her with contempt.
    Harry: I don't know what you're talking about.
    Doris: You don't know? You made a picture of your ex as a horror. In order to make that picture unsympathetic, you used some of her, but mostly, you caricatured my religious dedication, because it enraged you that I returned to my roots.
  • Critical Psychoanalysis Failure: Joan might have needed a lot of help after being cheated on with one of her patients and getting divorced; we know she didn't take it well.
  • Death by Childbirth: Happened to Harry's mom; his father never quite forgave him for that.
  • Deconstruction: It's in the title. The film can be considered a deconstruction of all of the "Woody Allen" leads from Annie Hall to the present, and how much of a pathetic person that character can seem to others.
  • Driven to Suicide: "My brains on your fucking carpet!" Ultimately Averted in that after Harry talks her down from killing herself, she agrees that she shouldn't kill herself, and instead targets Harry for death instead.
  • Easy Road to Hell: The fifth floor of Hell is for subway mothers, aggressive panhandlers, and book critics; the sixth is for right-wing extremists, serial killers, and lawyers who appear on television. On the floor Harry gets off on, he meets the guy who invented aluminum siding.
  • Expy: Joan is a thinly veiled Mia Farrow.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening credits has the same scene repeating itself, with disjointed Jump Cuts. It's a hint this film is a Show Within a Show, as Harry is composing a book in his own mind.
  • Functional Addict: Harry sees himself as one, as far as booze and anti-anxiety pills are concerned. Other characters don't agree.
  • The Fundamentalist: Played with, twice:
    • In one of Harry's stories, this is the reason his marriage to his former psychoanalyst failed: after the birth of their son, she rediscovered her Jewish roots, became obsessed with faith and tradition, and ended up leaving Harry for a dashing Israeli patient. In real life, though, Harry cheated on Joan with one of her patients.
    • Then there's Bert, Harry's brother-in-law, an observant Jew who Harry despises to the point of becoming estranged from his sister. They later briefly reconnect.
      Harry: And there he is, direct from the Wailing Wall!
  • Gallows Humor: Harry indulges in this. For example, he says the two most wonderful words in the English language are "It's benign."
  • Gilligan Cut:
    The Devil: And one thing you're not, is a kidnapper.
    (cut to)
    Joan: KIDNAPPER!!!
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Mostly bad. Harry wants to fuck every woman he even sees.
    Harry: I think of fucking every woman I meet. I meet a woman in the bank or on the bus, I think, "What's she look like naked? Can I fuck her?"
  • Good Is Boring: Ken points out that Harry hates stability, running away from stable women and getting into doomed relationships with unstable women.
  • High-Class Call Girl: The Asian prostitute in one of the stories-within-a-story.
  • Hellevator: Going to Hell starts with a long, boring ride down one. The automated voice allows Allen to make some Take Thats.
    Elevator announcer: Floor five: muggers, aggressive panhandlers and book critics... Floor six: right wing extremists, killers, lawyers who appear on TV... Floor seven: the media. (Beat) Sorry, that floor is all filled up... Floor eight: escaped war criminals, TV evangelists and the NRA.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Mostly played for laughs, of the smug variety.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold:
    • Cookie, who offers him a free blowjob because Harry is depressed. She also goes with Harry to his college to give him moral support.
    • The High-Class Call Girl Harvey hires also seems like a good person, which may reflect Harry's opinions of prostitutes.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "Some bury, some burn, I ate!"
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Joan loathes Harry and wants her son to have nothing to do with Harry. Given that Harry inappropriately speaks about sex to a child and later kidnaps his son, can you blame her?
  • Jump Cut: Used during the film and a clue that the entire film is one of Harry Block's stories.
  • The Lancer: Larry is Harry's best friend. However, Harry is jealous of him, which only worsens when Larry dates his ex-girlfriend.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Borrow a sick friend's apartment, pretend it's your bachelor pad, use his name to introduce yourself to a High-Class Call Girl... hey, that's The Grim Reaper at the door. And he won't believe you're not the guy.
  • Meaningful Name: Harry Block, although Writer's Block is just a symptom of his depression.
  • Morality Pet: Played with. Harry's very fond of his young son Hilliard, who he enjoys spending time with; too bad all his life lessons to the kid are variations on Good Is Boring.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: And since Harry Block is a thinly veiled Author Avatar, it's a given, since Woody writes what he knows.invoked
  • Motor Mouth: Harry, naturally, but the Woody Allen yappy character type is deconstructed (naturally!) by a character as being cowardly tap dancing instead of being a man.
  • Muse Abuse: Harry takes inspiration from all of his friends and family — and simultaneously makes unflattering portraits of their Expy characters — and worse, Harry doesn't really care.
  • Mythology Gag: Longtime Woody Allen fans will recognize the Literal Metaphor of Harry showing up someplace with a dead body, a hooker and a gun, when has been Allen's previous metaphor for being in an impossibly difficult situation to explain or rationalize.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: Judy thinks that the "other woman" her sister complains Harry was having an affair with was her — until she mentions the other woman's name.
  • Only Sane Woman: Cookie never loses her cool and never focuses on meaningless abstracts. She talks Harry out of being out of focus simply by grounding him in reality.
  • Parental Issues: Harry had a bad relationship with his father — which shows up in "Max Pincus' Dark Secret". His sister calls him out on Harry's depiction of him as a diffident axe murderer who ate his victims. Harry finally reconciles with his father in Hell.
    Doris: Enough! I remember "Max Pincus' Dark Secret". That is a disgraceful story. You don't see your sick view of our parents?
    • However, when Harry isn't around, Doris acknowledges Harry does have a legit grudge, but feels sorry for him because he was never able to forgive his father or move past it.
  • Prison Rape: Larry warns Gabe he'll be buggered by every con in jail. The prison guard warns Gabe that if he doesn't bless Larry and Fay's wedding, he'll toss him in a cell and bugger him himself.
  • Pygmalion Plot: Seems to have played a major role in Harry and Fay's romantic relationship; he considered her "a fan, then a pupil", but in the end he fell in love and she didn't truly reciprocate his feelings. Fay invokes Pygmalion to describe their relationship.
  • Recycled In Space: Wild Strawberries ONLY DARKER AND EDGIER.
  • Show Within a Show: Harry's stories within the film - and then The Reveal that the entire movie is the new story by Harry about himself.
  • The Shrink: Joan and her fictional counterpart.
  • Sidekick: Harry's friend and colleague Richard.
  • Straw Nihilist: Harry.
    Doris: You have no values. Your life, it's nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.
    Harry: In France, I could run on that slogan and win!
  • Take That Me: Harry's imagination tells him he's a fuckup who misjudges everyone he knows, including his own sister. From a meta-perspective, Woody Allen's habit of thinly made Roman A Clefs have gotten him into trouble, and much of the harsh critique in the film can be applied to Allen.
  • There Is a God!: Harry, an atheist, uses this in reference to Bobby Thomson's game-winning home run in the 1951 National League playoffs. "When he hit that home run it was the only hint I had that there may be a God."
  • Tragic Intangibility: One of Harry's short stories deals with Mel (Robin Williams) becoming blurry and out-of-focus. The same thing starts to happen to Harry til Cookie talks him out of it.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Joan's poor patient deals with her going batshit insane, screaming at Harry in the next room with Cluster F Bombs.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Played with: Cookie comes off as a self-assured, reasonably content sex worker, who accepts Harry's offer of money in exchange for accompanying him to his old college, even if she met him a couple hours before (and therefore has no idea whether he could pose a danger to her). She's also treated far more nicely than any other female character in-universe.
    Harry: Every hooker I ever speak to tells me that it beats the hell out of waitressing. Waitressing's gotta be the worst fucking job in the world.
  • Villainous BSoD: Once the group arrive at Harry's alma mater, they find out his friend Richard - who they thought was simply dozing off - has died in his sleep, presumably of a heart attack; Harry panics and briefly goes out of focus.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Happens at least twice, with characters from Harry's stories ("Ken" and "Helen", the latter being a mix between his ex-wife and his sister) lecturing him on the mistakes he made in his personal life.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The film is similar to Wild Strawberries and 8, in that it is about a professor in the former and an artist in the latter struggling with his current relationships and remembering his old ones, interspersed with dream sequences, as well as his work being based on events from his life.
  • Write Who You Know: invoked With almost no exception, Harry's characters are thinly-veiled versions of people he knows; considering in real life he's a bit of a bastard, every time he's got a new novel out, at least one of his personal relationships goes very sour.
    "And of course there's Jane, or, as you pathetically disguised her... Janet."
    • Even he occasionally can't tell the difference between real life and fiction.
    Lucy: Oh big fucking deal, you gave her large breasts!
    Lucy: Lucy. I'm Lucy, motherfucker. Not Leslie.