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Mighty Aphrodite

Review by Carrie Gorringe

 

Directed by Woody Allen.

Starring Woody Allen,
Helena Bonham-Carter, Mira Sorvino,
F. Murray Abraham, and Peter Weller.

In Mighty Aphrodite, Woody Allen has decided to address the latest burning issue among well-heeled urbanites in the 1990s. Having acquired all of the latest and most prestigious occupational positions and material possessions, these individuals now seek to acquire status through their children, who, of course, are literally overflowing with talent; given their childrens’ illustrious genetic advantages, how could they be anything but? In the offspring lottery, Lenny and Amanda Weinrib (Allen and Bonham Carter) have quite clearly won the yuppie grand prize: their son, Max, is extremely intelligent, handsome and charming. But neither of the Weinribs can claim genetic credit for Max; he is adopted, since Amanda, an ambitious would-be art dealer, had no intentions of becoming pregnant and causing a potential derailing of her career, although she might be capable of having an affair with the would-be financial backer of her own gallery (Weller). The only credit Amanda can claim on behalf of Max is in having the personal connections that allowed her to get to the head of the adoption line. When Max’s intellectual talent becomes apparent -- at the age of three, he creates elaborate structures with an Erector set with no parental assistance -- Amanda and Lenny are intrigued as to the obviously gifted origins of their son. Through a series of hilarious, if rather traditional, plot conventions, Lenny locates Max’s biological mother, and the cruelest irony of all. No Nobel Prize winner she, Linda Ash (Sorvino), nee Leslie St. James, is an individual of stunning naivete who works primarily as a prostitute. Nevertheless, she does have ambitions of the thespian variety, and attempts to further them by her occasional work as a porn actress under the oh-so-appropriate stage name of Judy Cum. Obviously horrified by the down-market status of Max’s mother, the rest of the film concentrates upon Lenny’s quest to "improve" Linda’s life.

Fortunately for Lenny and the film’s narrative trajectory, Linda is amenable to assistance in cleaning up her act. She wants to get married and have children. Lenny attempts to oblige Linda by fixing her up with a fighter, a dolt of the lowest order who cannot determine his left fist from his right without an external arbiter, but who is capable of declaring Linda an unsuitable wife because he can determine that taking an ex-prostitute for a wife would leave him open to ridicule by his friends (the same friends who inadvertently revealed Linda’s pornographic past to him). Yet, even Lenny’s aims are hardly less elitist; he openly admits to a friend that he wants Linda to marry well so that her shady past is safely concealed by the time that Max starts asking potentially embarrassing questions. So, Lenny’s "solution" to Linda’s "problem" is really the solution to Lenny’s "problem".

Within Mighty Aphrodite this contempt for Linda and the choices she felt obliged to make is at best barely concealed and, in making it so, Allen runs the risk of being too nasty. Anyone who is familiar with the body of Allen’s work at its best knows how skillfully he can convey barely-concealed hostility by cloaking it in an extremely thin veneer of mordant wit; witness the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) in which, at the end of a very bad date, he tells his companion that, as far as he was concerned, the date had been as much fun as the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. In the case of Mighty Aphrodite, Allen has created an uneasy balancing act by dehumanizing Linda excessively in the audience’s eyes (because of her lifestyle) while at the same time allowing the audience to know too much personal information about her; an entire sequence is devoted to Linda’s personal, almost touching, narration of her rather pitiful upbringing. It’s almost as if Allen is unable to reconcile himself to using prostitution as the focal point of a joke -- though, as the examples above and below indicate, Allen doesn’t tend toward reticence in his choice of material; one certainly hopes that he hasn’t allowed publicity over his, admittedly, rather checkered personal life to cloud his judgment. Nevertheless, comedy requires psychological distance to make it work, and there are points in this film where the comedy threatens to veer into the realm of tragedy.

But Allen has the skill to make the unwieldy apparatus stay in place by making the ambiguity in the film work as a means of self-questioning. Using Lenny’s so-called good intentions, the film raises questions as to when altruism crosses over into egoism. Even after she has rejected his earlier offers of assistance, Lenny still cannot resist the urge to insult her from the safe sanctimony of his upper-middle-class pedestal ("I wish I had the penicillin concession for your apartment complex," he tells her when she informs him that she is still a prostitute). Only gradually does Lenny, solidly upwardly-mobile and painfully aware of the consequences of social faux pas, reawaken in her the concept of shame and this happens only because -- surprise -- she is really a "good" girl at heart, who wants nothing more than a man to "treat her nice." But, with all of his emotional goading and interference in her life, he seems unprepared for the potential damage he might cause in her life and unwilling to take the consequences for his actions (such as provoking a fight between Linda and her pimp). Furthermore, he doesn’t even have the decency, after barging into her life, to inform her of Max’s current status. For all of his so-called principles and his airy confidence in the rightness of his viewpoint, Lenny is nothing more than what those at the left of the political spectrum like to call a phony liberal bourgeois, scared to death of what the neighbors might say. Allen conveys this rather poisonous message subtly but effectively.

There is no question at all, however, about the acting ability of Mira Sorvino. Her portrayal of Leslie/Linda/Judy (take your pick) is exquisitely balanced. When she first appears on screen as Linda, she is an uninhibitedly cheerful and trashy individual, right down to the overt phallic symbolism in her apartment covered by the camera in explicit detail (you’ll never look at cacti the same way again). When Linda shows Lenny her new wall clock (a hideously cheap but hilariously vulgar artifact), Sorvino makes her seem blithely unaware of the effect it is having on Lenny. In fact, the performance is much more skillfully constructed; Linda is not as much blithely unaware as dissociated from her surroundings (no doubt the dissociation is a side-effect of her upbringing, if the dimestore-Freud deduction might be permitted). Sorvino never allows Linda to appear completely comfortable with her current status; the nasal honk in her accent works to promote this sense of unease, seeming to grow stronger as she becomes uncomfortable and finally angry at Lenny’s comic undermining of her attitudes toward her livelihood. During their first meeting, a remarkable thing happens: Sorvino literally overtakes Allen on screen and reduces him to insignificance, so powerful is her performance. Granted, Allen has a reputation for writing strong roles for actresses (at least when he isn’t on screen at the same time as they, in which case the women can be reduced to mere foils for his humor), but never in any one of his other films does one get the impression that he has underestimated an actress’s ability to upstage him as in this case. Allen must have seen the result during the dailies; in the rest of the film, Sorvino is reduced to merely keeping up with him with ease. Even the eventual diminution of her character into the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold does not dim Sorvino’s screen presence (the same cannot be said for Bonham Carter, who never enriches her character’s stereotypical persona with anything beyond whining, and Peter Weller, as usual, merely occupies screen space).

Of course, with a referent to Greek mythology in the film’s title, there has to be a Greek chorus and a "deus ex machina." The former is choreographed with Busby Berkeley charm and presided over delightfully by the versatile F. Murray Abraham. The latter is applied with a broad stroke of satirical literalism. Sophocles -- and the audience -- never had it so good.


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