MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995) *** 1/4
"Show me a person who never had an obsession and I'll show you a liar" wrote the Swiss philosopher Breitling. Indeed, if not all, most people have had obsessions at one time or other, whether with miniature railroads, sex, self-agrandizement, scholarly or financial pursuits -- the list is endless.
Woody Allen has filled his movies with obsessed characters, often played by himself. "Mighty Aphrodite" is another tale of obsession yet. Sportswriter Lenny Weinrib (wein as in wine, rib as in tickle) is married to the younger Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter). She talks him into adopting a baby, Max. The kid turns out to be so amazingly smart that Lenny goes bananas over him. (Allen has, rightly, always admired brains but mocked pedants) So Lenny wonders who the biological parents were and embarks on an obsessive search for them. It doesn't hurt that Amanda and Lenny aren't doing too well together. Men need a hobby after all.
The search is clever, both subtly amusing and blatantly hilarious. When the goal is reached, the mother turns out to be a hooker who has also been in porno flicks. She is Linda, one of her names that also include a raunchy nom-de-skin. As played by Mira Sorvino she is beautiful, sexy, essentially innocent, quite dumb and quite likable. Her voice, her naturally vulgar and dirty (but coming from her somehow un-shocking) language, her malapropisms, her naivete, her apartment stuffed with sex items, her everything, are something else. Totally comfortable with her whorishness, she also thinks that she is an actress. An endless source of wisdom, she declares, among others, that copulating (my euphemism) is like acting. This is philosophy of a high degree.
Mira is a kindly, sweet, empty-headed addition to the traditional whore with a heart of gold. If it looks like a cliche, sounds like a cliche and feel like a cliche, it's a cliche, right? Wrong. Linda is a tour-de-force, a novel, original creation. It helps that Ms. Sorvino is terrific in her role.
In their first encounter, Linda takes Lenny for another John, a customer, but as he deviously, gauchely and funnily evades sex while pumping her for information, she sees him as a weirdo. Lenny persists however and (I skip the hows and whys here) the two becomes fast friends. So fast that they do make love once. So fast that her pimp threatens to scar her and to kill Lenny. "Did he specify the caliber?" he asks, in one of the weakest one-liners of the movie. You can't expect perfection, even from Woody, who, in any case, redeems himself in the way he evades punishment.
Lenny plays Pygmalion with Linda but she's no Galatea or Eliza Doolittle. Instead she's closer to the classic pun on "horticulture": "you can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think. "
No matter, Linda is definitely a sweetie.
The plot thickens when Lenny tries to play matchmaker. Kevin (Michael Rappaport) is a young boxer whose dim bulb must put out all of ten watts. A boxer, mind you, who wants to retire at the height of his triumphs ("I had 16 fights. I won all of them but 12") to become an onion farmer. By himself, Kevin is a scream. With Linda, he is a loud howl. The two are so dumb that neither can tell how dumb the other one is.
This plan fails. Linda is stranded, but a deus ex machina fellow saves the day, and her future. When I say "machina, " I mean it. The man comes in a helicopter.
There is at least one sub-plot in the movie, about art-dealing Amanda and pursuing art-dealer Peter Weller. Though really inconsequential, it fleshes out the film somewhat. Both are strictly supporting roles. Woody shares center stage with Ms. Sorvino, rather sadly shows his age but is very much the gentleman who allows Linda to steal Lenny's scenes. He is, predictably, the same old Woody character, hesitant, awkward, plus all those other things for which Yiddish dictionaries have plenty of terms.
To hold this sameness against Woody Allen is to show ingratitude, like complaining that Charlie Chaplin was too much the Little Tramp. To resent Woody's November-April movie relationships with women misses two points: that here the Lenny-Linda relationship is not really an amorous-sexual one, and that even if it were, those older man-young woman affairs are a fact of life, one that Woody Allen has illustrated with superb variants.
To put down this movie (it's happening mostly with East Coast reviewers) makes no sense to me. Yes, Woody Allen may be wearing thin for some people, but that's their problem. It feels like that voter in ancient Athens who liked the incumbent politican but cast his ballot against him because " I am tired hearing him called The Just. "
Talking of Greeks, here is the one iffy aspect of the movie. It opens with, and is punctuated by, a Greek chorus set in Greece (and filmed in Taormina) that parodies those of Greek plays. It comments, describes, advises and clowns -- much of this in the spirit and language of New York Jewish humor. It's the sort of anachronism that may feel too broad a gag or sophomoric. But it is also a Brechtian distancing device. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Having seen the film only once, I reserve my decision.
Allen has again teamed up with his old faithful crew. Production values are impeccable.