Hot on the high-heels of "Showgirls" comes Woody Allen's latest film, "Mighty Aphrodite," named after the Greek goddess of love, another American film trying to interrogate the questionable mentality and dubious spirituality of the skin trade. A lot will probably be made of the fact that, not satisfied with merely pointing out classical references in his text, Allen decided to have a whole Greek Chorus (consisting of F. Murray Abraham, Olympia Dukakis, David Ogden Stiers and Jack Warden) filmed in an ancient outdoor amphitheater in Taormina, Italy (wearing masks, no less, in a nod to classical authenticity) and genuflect on the alter of genuine myth to underscore the tragic and comedic parts of his film. It doesn't matter how well- versed you are in the Greeks, you'll be able to enjoy what Allen has done with his approach, which is a very refreshing idea for film (bringing it all back home) and also a great surreal scaffold for the situation he presents. Purists be warned. Allen (Now 60 years old, but trying to play his role like he's not a day over 40) and Helena Bonham- Carter (29 years old) are happily married when one day Bonham-Carter's biological clock goes off and she wants to have a baby immediately. Allen hesitates so much at the thought of pregnancy that Bonham- Carter, who really can't wait, says, "fine, let's adopt, then," which of course hits the raw nerve of Allen's masculinity as he defends his genes against the idea of having someone else's child join their family.
Allen's character in this film is a sportswriter, adding another "tough" layer to his never-ending quiche of a meditation/angst-ridden search for definitive masculinity. Every scene where Allen suffers some sort of gender-related torment is set in a male arena: When he's fighting on the phone with Bonham-Carter about the decision to adopt, the backdrop is a boxing club with every ring filled with sparring partners. Another scene where he contemplates his situation shows him pacing back and forth on the sidelines watching the New York Giants scrimmage in the Meadowlands.
The couple finally decide to adopt a boy, and in one scene in particular I realized just how much Allen is stuck in a zeitgeist rut. In their uptown apartment Allen and Bonham-Carter bandy names back and forth for the new little tike as Allen, forever the cultural namedropper, comes up with the monikers of all of his heroes: Django, Groucho, Thelonius. Bonham-Carter is oblivious to his suggestions as she coddles the baby and suddenly you realize that Allen should have made this film years ago, because the conversation sounds like something that was written for what would have been the sequel to "Annie Hall." Now that he's twenty years removed from the carefree days of dynamic dialogue with Diane Keaton and the spark she brought as Allen's main female foil, Bonham-Carter seems unsure of herself, treating Allen as obligatorily as a father or uncle rather than her husband. Enter the plot.
Bonham-Carter is being chased by Peter Weller (48 years old), a seductively sleazy art gallery owner, which sends Allen's mid-life crisis into an absolute tailspin as he begins wondering if he's really happy with his wife, and as he's looking at his newly adopted "son" he wonders aloud what the mother of his adopted child is like. Enter Cassandra and...you get the picture.
One of the things I realized while watching "Mighty Aphrodite" is that Allen has spent a good portion of his career in film flagellating himself for not being the American Ingmar Bergman, when all the time he should have been luxuriating in the fact that he's the American Federico Fellini: He has an uncanny sense for seeking out ripe minor actors, ready to be picked, and then letting them find the aspect of the character they're playing that makes them Characters rather than just parts played by actors. Even though I feel as if Bonham-Carter is not given nearly enough room to fully flesh out her character (which is a shame for an actress of her caliber), the film is really about Linda, the real mother of Allen and Bonham-Carter's adopted child, who turns out to be a ditzy porn star overflowing with spunk and zeal.
Linda, played by Mira Sorvino (Quiz Show, Barcelona), Paul Sorvino's daughter, steals the film. Allen has tempted fate and defied the Greek Chorus' warnings by seeking out Linda, but since she's in the skin trade he arranges to meet her at her apartment in the guise of being merely a "john." When Allen's reticence at wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am sex gets the better of him, he finally shows the age and mindset that he really is and turns into a grandfather before your very eyes.
But, Linda is a ditz first and a hooker second in that she understands her victimization but also begins to realize that her situation is only as hopeless as her innate tenacity is boundless. In the most delicate scene in the film, and maybe the most poignant scene I've seen all year, Sorvino is in her bathtub-sized kitchen trying to defend her life to Allen, and as she keeps talking she realizes her own complicity until she finally mentions that she even had a baby once that she gave up for adoption. Allen gives her this scene by not entering the frame for what seems like a full minute. The direction in this scene alone, in Linda's chessily decorated flat complete with clocks of pigs in heat, shows just how gifted Allen is at being able to take an obscure actress, give her a two-dimensional role and have her find the heart and soul of the film on her own.
Leave it to Woody Allen to deliver a film that is fascinating on many levels and is as beautifully structured as anything you're likely to see all year. I don't believe it's Best Picture material, but it does show a very strong return to form for Allen, no matter how unsure he is of reentering the war between the sexes.