On the one hand, Woody Allen’s latest film, “Mighty Aphrodite” - his 26th as a director - is the stuff of cliche. It involves a struggling marriage, insecure New Yorkers, a hooker with a golden heart, etc.
On the other, Allen finds a way, as he usually does, to overcome these by-now-familiar themes. And what way is that? By coming up with a fresh feel for his trademark brand of humor.
Allen takes a joke, twists it, then turns it on its head. And what’s left is “Mighty Aphrodite.”
The film tells the story of Lenny Weinrib, a New York-based sportswriter who is married to art entrepreneur/would-be gallery owner Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter).
Giving in to Amanda’s desire to have (but not bear) a baby, Lenny reluctantly agrees to adopt an infant boy - who, dubbed Max, then grows into the smartest, most sociable and best-looking child imaginable.
But this is a Woody Allen movie, remember, so the glow that Max casts over Lenny’s marriage gradually begins to fade under the weight of his inhibitions and Amanda’s professional/personal frustrations. Naturally, it is only a matter of time before Lenny begins to obsess as a way of occupying his mind. Specifically, he begins a search for Max’s parents.
This, of course, is where the hooker comes in. And this, too, is where Allen the writer-director begins having fun. Because the mother, Linda (Mira Sorvino), once he finds her, is not what Lenny expects.
Because his son is so exceptional, Lenny has every reason to believe that his mother is a Phi Beta Kappa and his father a professional athlete. Once again, though, you have to remember that this is Woody Allen’s imagination.
So where Lenny tends toward sophisticated tastes, Linda exhibits an obvious five-and-dime sensibility. While his apartment is hip, upper-class New York, hers is more a mix of wholesale warehouse and Erotique Boutique. Where he merely writes about tough guys, she works for one (a killer pimp with a shaved head).
In short, he is Henry Higgins in a sportcoat, and she is Eliza Doolittle in a Wonderbra.
For a variety of reasons, which he passes off as mere concerns about Max’s reaction should he ever track down his birth mother, Lenny decides to change Linda’s life. And so at the very time that Lenny should be trying to save his marriage, he begins his own personal version of “My Fair Lady.”
It is, of course, an exercise in hubris.
If we didn’t understand this Greek-drama reference right off, Allen makes sure to tell us. And he does so in a manner that provides “Mighty Aphrodite” much of its humor: Throughout the movie, an actual Greek chorus comments on what is going on.
And so we have the chorus leader (F. Murray Abraham) decrying the self-destructive behavior of such Greek characters as Jocasta (Olympia Dukakis) and Laius (David Ogden Stiers), who just happen to be the parents of father-killer, mother-lover Oedipus. And then, without breaking rhythm, we have Abraham leading the chorus in a more contemporary refrain:
“Please, Lenny,” they chant at one point, “don’t be a schmuck.”
It sounds a bit corny, but it is fairly hilarious.
As is Sorvino, who plays a woman known, variously, as Leslie Wright, Leslie Wales, Leslie St. James and Linda Ash and who performs in such porn movies as “Beaver Patrol” and “Snatch Happy” under the stage name of Judy Cum.
Hookers who are, at heart, innocent babes are among the most overused of cliches. Yet nasal-voiced Sorvino, with her voluptuous body and uninhibited sexuality melded into a girl-next-door personality, creates a terrific comic character - one who lives up to every one of Lenny’s expectations.
Aside from his taking a rare positive stance on the possibility of ultimate happiness in marriage, Allen gives “Mighty Aphrodite” his typical professional attention. He takes full advantage of New York locales (though the chorus scenes were shot in Taormina, Italy). His use of jazz in the score is both functional and entertaining. And as an actor, he even resorts to a bit of the physical kind of humor that he once was a master of.
Not everyone will be convinced, however. Those filmgoers who don’t find prostitution funny under any circumstances will likely join those who have similar feelings about Allen (especially since his personal life has become fodder for tabloid sensibilities). And even Allen’s fans aren’t likely to allocate space for “Mighty Aphrodite” among his very best works.
Still, “Mighty Aphrodite” may well be one of the best films that 1995 has to offer. And the only qualifier worth making about that statement sounds like an Allen tagline:
Let’s face it, 1995 hasn’t been anything to brag about.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: 1. “Mighty Aphrodite” ***-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Woody Allen, starring Allen, Mira Sorvino, Helena Bonham Carter, F. Murray Abraham, Michael Rappaport, Peter Weller, Claire Bloom, Olympia Dukakis, Jack Warden and David Ogden Stiers. Running time: 1:33 Rating: R Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Mighty Aphrodite:” Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: Woody Allen is getting old. Not just in years, but in the way he makes his movies. The one keeps reflecting on the other in Allen’s latest comedy, “Mighty Aphrodite.” Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Hard-line admirers of Woody Allen will go for “Mighty Aphrodite” in a big way. It’s another in the artist’s string of droll confessional exercises about his susceptibility to young women, and although the picture lacks the crowd-pleasing hilarity and suspense of 1994’s “Bullets over Broadway,” this is vintage Woody. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: With “Mighty Aphrodite,” Woody Allen returns to the zingy comic style that gave the Woodman the popularity to make 30 previous movies.