Woody Allen has made a film per year, every year, since the early '80s. It's a startling rate of productivity for an artist whose medium is film, and lately, it's been showing its strain on the work. Much of Allen's films in the '90s, since Crimes and Misdemeanors, have been relatively disappointing, characterized by interesting, often fanciful conceits (Alice, Shadows and Fog, Everyone Says I Love You) underdeveloped in their execution. Deconstructing Harry is not much of an exception-what separates it are the irresistibly fascinating levels underlying the underdeveloped conceit.

Deconstructing Harry is about a writer whose art is informed by his life, and whose life is informed by his art. Traversing the playful exchange between art and life has always been a concern of Allen's, though he's never been so literal about it. This film is about an artist, a writer named Harry Block (Woody Allen), using his own life and his own psychological baggage as his muse. It's about an artist (Woody Allen) whose own personal problems become prime material for his writing. It's about an artist (Woody Allen) who refuses to apologize for his artistic indiscretions and personal deviations from the norm. Actually, trying to ascertain just who the film is about is as intriguing as the film itself. For it's simply impossible to avoid looking at Deconstructing Harry as an act of public apologia, as an act of Deconstructing Woody.

And that goes for Woody the filmmaker and Woody the family-breaker. Going against the grain of his customarily unadorned visual sense, Allen is at his most visually ostentatious, fixating on a jittery jump-cut editing style that works all too well at creating a feeling of disjointedness. More significantly, for the very first time in one of his films, the white-centric world has been penetrated-there is a black character given a meaningful voice, here a supportive and casually wise hooker (hey, Rome wasn't rebuilt in a day), played with a quiet confidence by newcomer Hazelle Goodman. And, resonating at an even higher gear, one of his characters actually says to another, 'Life takes us in funny directions, we're not always responsible for our feelings.'

Compare and contrast these elements with the film's wildest departure from Allen's past work. This time, the Woody character, while still neurotic, still therapist-dependent, and still obsessed with art and death, has been turned into a crude, profanity-spewing, blow-job-obsessed, sex-obsessed, self-obsessed jerk. It's the Woody character as undivided id, and the questions multiply. Is this Woody's way of separating Harry Block as much as possible from the Woody Allen character, and therefore distancing himself from the elements that appear self-referential? Or is Woody putting his own demons on full, unrepentant display?

These questions are continuously begged for throughout the film, and they almost succeed in smoothing over what is ultimately a rather spiritless effort. Deconstructing Harry is certainly a mark above Allen's most recent works-it's refreshing to see an artist spreading his wings this wide. But he's still gliding on underworked ideas. There isn't much up this film's sleeve outside of its one joke, as Block realizes that all the people he's used as literary fodder despise him for it. What little narrative momentum there is consists of Block searching for anyone willing to accompany him to an honorary-degree bestowal at his alma mater, while trying to get over a nasty case of writer's block at the same time. Along the way, we see a series of vignettes, as Block visits relatives in the present and revisits his stories, containing characters based on those relatives. He hits and he misses, the usual supply of inspired laughs are there, but it just doesn't come to much of anything.

And, once again, his cast is chock full of stars. Many of them exist as little more than flashy wallpaper, but some actually make a mark. Kirstie Alley inhabits the film's most uproarious scene, as Block's psychiatrist ex-wife, who explodes in a hysterical rage in front of one of her patients after learning of her husband's philandering ways. Robin Williams gets the benefit of the film's most inventive visual idea without having to do much work himself, as an actor losing his focus-literally. And, in the film's most trippy bit of self-reference, Mariel Hemingway, the schoolgirl object of Allen's affection from Manhattan, plays a friend of Harry's ex-wife who tries to protect Harry's son from his father, looking on appalled as Harry talks to his child with an extreme sexual frankness, and screaming like a banshee when Harry attempts to steal the child away. Allen has repeatedly insisted that his work is based on nothing but the workings of his imagination, that nothing he was written has been in response to critics, or can be traced to his own personal travails. It's just too difficult to believe him this time.

--David Luty