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MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995)

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3 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“If Clint Eastwood wants to be hairdresser then just let him”.

After losing a year long custody battle to Mia Farrow over their two adopted children – and enduring very public allegations of sexual abuse on one of them – you would assume that adoption would be the last thing Allen would want to preoccupy his artistic time on. But the case of adoption-phobic sportswriter Lenny Weinrib appears unsurprisingly similar to the case of Woody Allen. Allen had often wondered about the origins of his adopted daughter Dylan, an unusually bright child. That brooding turns to obsession in Mighty Aphrodite, where a subject matter so personally heavy to Allen is treated rather lightweight on screen.

Finally agreeing to adopt a boy called Max, Lenny becomes preoccupied with discovering who this gifted child’s birth mother is. Max’s talent turns out to be the product of Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a prostitute and porn star who many others know as the tastefully named Judy Cum. Initially terrified of getting more involved with this creature, Lenny begins to take pity on her. Out of privileged hubris – with a dollop of lust thrown in – he plays God and attempts to shape her destiny for the benefit of Max when he inevitably looks for his mum. Because every child wants their birth mother to be hairdresser married to an onion farmer, rather than the star of ‘The Enchanted Pussy’. Larry, a man with a “full Achilles body”, begins to resemble the antics of Danny Rose in his fish-out-of-water negotiation tactics. The action is charted by a melodramatic and choreographed Greek Chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham), acting as an amusing moral compass for Lenny’s meddling.  It’s a fun comic gimmick that plays up the Grecian irony of the story by adding a little depth to its themes, but it largely serves to just provide some nice gags. A favourite of mine is them breaking out into an a capella version of “You Do Something to Me” while serenading a date.

Sorvino is super as the sweet, peppy, simple-minded, helium-pitched prostitute-come-porn star-come-wannabee hairdresser. She breezes along with endearment and energy while carefully balancing this with genuine vulnerability and emotional scarring; without losing either the humour or the pathos. She has a command of the screen no other performer here can match, growing this potentially one dimensional cliche into a well rounded and sympathetic woman. Sorvino famously only got the role after dressing up in character and forcing a recall with Allen in the plush 5-star Dorchester Hotel in London. Her reward was an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress – two in a row for Woody after Dianne Wiest’s victory last year in Bullets Over Broadway.

With her passion for helping disadvantaged children and avoiding over-population on Earth, Lenny’s curator wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) becomes a surrogate for Farrow. Carter plays the character in the vein of Farrow’s mousey yet neurotic tone, with her voice even sounding eerily exactly like Mia at times. Her performance and his pseudo-fictional premise aren’t surprising when you consider that Woody had the bind gall to suggest to casting director Juliet Taylor that Mia would be the best person to play the role of Amanda. Taylor had the common sense to dissuade him approaching her.

The poster for the film suggests that “The sexy fun begins this June!”. It’s a tagline I don’t think Woody would include in his own synopsis, but as a description of what makes the film successful, it’s accurate. The scene where Larry and Linda first meet in her apartment, surrounded by a collection of hysterical phallic ornaments, is brilliant. Allen writhes around in his mistake, damned wherever he looks – at Linda particularly. The film also bears some of Allen’s most graphic language – “Well you didn’t want a blowjob, so the least I could do is get you a tie”; “So there I am on the first day on set and there’s this guy fucking me from behind right, and there’s these two hug guys dressed like cops in my mouth at the same time. And I remember thinking to myself – ‘I like acting. I wanna study'”.

But for all its accomplished comedic writing, the narrative regularly relies on typical Woody Allen contrivance. This can be overlooked because the action it facilitates is so regularly wonderful to watch, but the final 10 minutes here is an unforgivable series of rushed and desperate attempts at unnecessary narrative notes to conclude a fairy tale; Amanda leaves Larry; Linda gets beat up by her boyfriend Kevin (Michael Rapaport); Larry sleeps with Linda (despite his earlier concerns, he doesn’t need to be put on a respirator after making love to her); Larry begins to regret this and miss his wife (just like Alvie quickly began to miss Annie); Amanda simultaneously regrets cheating on him and they get back together; Linda meets her perfect husband via a miraculous helicopter breakdown and has a baby; Larry and Linda meet several years later, with Larry’s ironic punishment for his meddling unknowingly being the biological father to Linda’s child – just as she is to Max.

It’s all an embarrassing and odd mess that stumbles into well signed pitfalls, adding zero depth or satisfaction to the story. What’s most disappointing is how Allen throws away a sweetly developed connection between Larry and Linda – two people at their lowest pulling one another up – by going with the obvious, easy and cheap short cut. The Woody Allen of 1972 may be expected to indulge in his lustful storytelling incentives, but the Woody Allen of 1995 should have stronger perseverance and awareness. Out of all 16 of his Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, this feels the most unworthy among that company.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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