Allen's 'Mighty Aphrodite' Takes Shallow Look at Love
Viewers might draw parallels between his latest film and his own woes
NEW YORK — There he goes again. Woody Allen has long complained that moviegoers draw too many connections between him and the characters he plays.
If he's so peeved about this problem, though, one might ask why he keeps writing this character over and over - the reasonably brainy, moderately nerdy Jewish guy who's such an obsessive New Yorker that not even rocky love affairs (which he endures in film after film) can shake him out of Manhattan.
Allen might answer, as he did when I interviewed him years ago, that his narrow acting range requires an equally narrow assortment of roles. Still, he can't expect audiences to draw clear lines between his on-screen and off-screen personas as long as he patterns important aspects of his characters on traits, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies that are part of his own personality.
And this is bound to lead to trouble. It did in 1980, when he starred in ''Stardust Memories'' as a filmmaker who despised his audience. And it's happening this year with his new comedy, ''Mighty Aphrodite,'' which leaves uncomfortably large openings for moviegoers to draw parallels - however strained or unfair these might be - between his cinematic work and the personal troubles that have made him a tabloid staple in recent years.
Allen plays a sportswriter whose wife talks him into adopting a baby. After a bit of initial terror, he falls goofily in love with the kid, but his affection takes a peculiar turn when he becomes fixated on locating the mother who gave the child up for adoption. She turns out to be a good-natured prostitute whose coarse exterior masks a diamond-in-the-rough inner self.
The plot takes many turns as our hero tries to help the prostitute improve her life, manage his own romantic feelings toward her, and hold his marriage together as he and his wife are both tempted by outside relationships.
Some observers have seized on a minor story point - the prostitute is younger than Allen's character - to accuse Allen of exploiting May-December romance in the wake of his own widely publicized involvement with a much younger woman. I think this is a cheap shot at Allen, given the vast differences between the fanciful screenplay and the facts of his real-life troubles.
Still, it seems clear that parts of ''Mighty Aphrodite'' are meant as self-justifications. Much of the opening portion shows Allen's character as an excellent adoptive dad, countering public charges that he badly failed in this department. The overall thrust of the narrative is to show him as a bumbling yet good-hearted man who may stumble into temptation but would never allow things to get too far out of hand.
The very title of the movie suggests that romantic attachment - here symbolized by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love - is a matter of destiny more than decision, and what's a poor guy to do when his emotions take over?
There's more than a trace of hypocrisy in this, of course. Allen has presented himself for decades as a hip intellectual with a healthy skepticism about bromides and platitudes. So it's hard not to cringe when he relies on an old saw like ''love conquers all'' to justify self-indulgences on or off the screen.
This aggressively shallow approach to life and love, coupled with a badly condescending attitude toward the story's working-class characters, makes ''Mighty Aphrodite'' one of Allen's least satisfactory films. This is too bad for the excellent cast, including Mira Sorvino as the prostitute, Helena Bonham Carter as the wife, and F. Murray Abraham as the leader of a Greek chorus that punctuates the action with hilarious commentary.
* ''Mighty Aphrodite'' has an R rating. It contains much more vulgar and sexually explicit language than most of Allen's films.