on 15 March 2000
This isn't Woody Allen's best film in the last few years - it doesn't compare with the verite photography of 'Husbands and Wives', the accomplished storytelling of 'Bullets Over Broadway' or the cleverness of 'Deconstructing Harry'. But it works as a comedy, without breaking any really new ground. Allen stars as a neurotic New York sports columnist - so he's actually playing himself again. Unlike his earlier films, 'Mighty Aphrodite' sees him trying to sort out someone else's love life instead of his own; in this case, that of Linda Ash, a squeaky-voiced but likeable prostitute played by Mira Sorvino. Helena Bonham Carter also features as a totally convincing New Yorker - presumably paving the way for further American character roles (as in 'Fight Club'). Anyway: if you're a lover of Woody Allen's oeuvre, this one should be in your video collection.
On re-watching Woody Allen's 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite for (I think) only the second time (since seeing it on release at the cinema) I was initially disappointed and seemed to have misremembered it as something of higher quality. As the film progresses, however, Mira Sorvino's character becomes more and more affecting until it just pushes into four star territory. For me, therefore, it is in the category of Woody films below his absolute best (Manhattan, Purple Rose Of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanours) and in the company of films such as Play It Again Sam, Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown, Manhattan Murder Mystery, etc. Whilst it clearly has nothing like the quality of outright gags as Play It Again Sam, its serious and poignant moments lift it above a straight 'Woody gag' film.
The film features Allen in one of his 'suspend disbelief' roles where his sportswriter Lenny Weinrib is married to Helen Bonham Carter's art gallery manager Amanda, and the couple, wishing to start a family, decide to adopt. As Lenny's marriage begins to hit the rocks he decides to try to trace the birth mother of adopted son Max, only to find that the said person is porn actress and prostitute Linda Ash (superbly played by Mira Sorvino). As Lenny and Linda become closer and closer friends (suspend disbelief again, of course), Lenny still refrains from telling Linda about Max, and tries to set Linda up with 'regular guy' ex-boxer Kevin (Michael Rapaport, also impressive). This does not work out, but Linda eventually does have a chance encounter with the 'man of her dreams' but not before she and Lenny have had a real romantic encounter which leaves her expecting Lenny's baby. Throughout the film, in keeping with the film title, Allen has a 'greek chorus' narrating the action, and with specific figures (Oedipus, Jocasta, Cassandra) intervening in specific scenes with Lenny (a la Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again Sam).
As noted above, the film is a slow burner, with the first 45 minutes being below par Allen (remarkably few decent gags). However, as Mira Sorvino becomes a more central character, the film ups its game. Sorvino is excellent as the (apparently) dumb blond with no sense of discretion as she constantly embarasses Lenny in public (for example, when at the racetrack she rants loudly, insisting on betting on outsider Eager Beaver, since she was once in a film called Beaver Patrol, etc). Once Lenny initiates a discussion on the child she gave up for adoption, however, Linda is clearly emotionally distraught. Sorvino won Best Supporting Actress for this performance, and probably just about deserved it (particularly, when you look at who else was nominated that year). It is, however, worth saying that, for me, Mia Farrow, in a similar performance i.e. OTT character, as Tina Vitale in Broadway Danny Rose, was far superior to Sorvino's performance and she wasn't even nominated for the Oscar!
Other notable acting performance in the film come from Michael Rapaport as the 'dumb boxer' Kevin, and that from Dan Moran as Linda's ruthless pimp Ricky (Moran became something of an Allen regular, admittedly in small roles, following this film). There is also a nice cameo performance from veteran (great) actor Jack Warden as Tiresias, the blind prophet. Also look out for other brief cameos by Tony Sirico (Paulie from the Sopranos) and from Paul Giamatti (in one of his earliest screen roles).
The film concludes with another clever (and poignant) Allen setpiece, where, some months after the main narrative has concluded, Lenny and Max run into Linda and her baby (in pram), thereby confronting both mother and father with (unbeknownst) offspring.
Overall therefore, whilst not one of Woody's greatest, definitely worth seeing, particularly for Mira Sorvino's performance.
One of the aspects of Woody Allen's films that I enjoy the most is his peppering his films with allusions to Greek myth and tragedy. These can emerge in a serious context, as in "Cassandra's Dream," or in a ludicrous one, as in "Scoop." In "Mighty Aphrodite," he turns the myth of Oedipus' parentage on its head by framing the attempts of one Lenny Weinrib to learn the parentage of his adopted son with a literal Greek chorus. In the ancient amphitheatre at Taormina, Sicily, the chorus, led by F. Murray Abraham, comment, warn, wring their collective hands, and lament to the gods, who as usual, don't listen (Although some have found Zeus' leaving a message on an answering machine lame, I thought it brilliant, since the gods were generally deaf to the pleas of mortals).
Normally, the mortals in Greek tragedy were kings and heros, not 'losers' the likes of Lenny, or the unschooled girl-for-hire, whom he takes under his wing (brilliantly played by Mira Sorvino); and Allen, who is fully aware of this, transforms the tragic chorus into a comic one, who sing and dance by the end of the film, when the tragic protagonists, Jocasta, Laius, Cassandra, et al, end up in the audience watching and enjoying life's comedy as the chorus celebrates it onstage. Jack Warden does a wonderful turn as blind Teiresias, who, as a 'prophetic' Manhattan pan-handler, crosses the boundaries between Allen's 'tragic' and 'comic' frames of reference.
Allen does not go for the easy ending, which the audience might be hoping for. Instead, his ending assumes the ambiguity that was as integral to Greek tragedy as it is to life.
Bottom Line: Those who love Woody Allen will love this film, which has visual moments that are guaranteed to offend someone [as did Greek comedy]; those who hate Allen will have their expectations fulfilled without any ambiguity whatsoever.