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The Sweet Hereafter opens with an idyllic image that haunts the rest of the movie: a young couple and their infant daughter asleep in a shaft of morning sunlight. Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan then leaps ahead two decades. Attorney Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), later revealed as the husband in that tableau, is stuck in a car wash trying vainly to reason via cell phone with his belligerent, drug-addicted child, Zoe (Caerthan Banks, daughter of Russell Banks, from whose novel the film was adapted).

Stephens has come to Sam Dent, an isolated rural community in British Columbia where a school bus has plunged into a frozen lake, killing 14 children. He hopes to talk the grieving residents into a class-action suit to obtain remuneration for their losses. At first, the townspeople are resistant to and suspicious of this outsider, but Stephens is persistent. He visits a squabbling couple who run the local motel and have lost their son in the accident. Subsequently, he interviews the bus driver, an eccentric new-age couple mourning for their adopted son, a widower whose two children were killed, and a couple whose daughter was crippled. Under the combined strains of the accident and the legal maneuverings, the town’s unity begins to unravel until a lie deliberately told by the maimed teenager terminates the suit, thereby alleviating the community’s anguish.

With The Sweet Hereafter, Egoyan reaches beyond the film festival/art theater circuit that has embraced his intelligent but rather hermetic and forbidding earlier efforts (Speaking Parts, Exotica). He displays a masterful command of structure, smoothly juggling time tenses, assorted narrators, and excerpts from Robert Browning’s poem “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” until the last piece of his mosaic narrative clicks into place. His ingenious method of telling the story is arguably more gratifying than the tale itself.

Egoyan’s characters are drawn with more moral complexity than we’re used to finding in contemporary films. Stephens’ motives aren’t easy to clarify. Superficially, he’s a hearse-chasing lawyer with a nose for a lucrative case. But the fervor he brings to his mission suggests that his goals aren’t exclusively (or even essentially) monetary. In seeking compensation and retribution for parents who have lost their children, he attempts to atone for his estrangement from his own daughter, cast adrift in a world of drugs and disease. Similarly, the townspeople are portrayed as conflicted souls. Egoyan strips away the façades of this tightknit community to reveal evidence of alienation, adultery, and incest. Even the climactic, healing gesture of wheelchair-bound Nicole (Sarah Polley) is open to question. She sacrifices a woman’s reputation and future to halt her hometown’s disintegration.

Sparked by expressive performances (Holm, Polley, and Gabrielle Rose as the bus driver are standouts), a palpable sensitivity to atmosphere and landscape, and the harrowing staging of the accident, The Sweet Hereafter casts a spell that’s hard to shake. Egoyan’s screenplay contains passages of excessively explicit dialogue, especially Stephens’ climactic monologue (“We’ve all lost our children. They are dead to us. Something terrible has happened. It’s taken our children away”). And the film’s mood of unrelieved misery—I counted only two (vague) jokes in 105 minutes—leads it perilously close to the brink of self-parody, the line over which Ang Lee’s similarly themed The Ice Storm heedlessly plummeted. (SCTV would have had a field day sending up these unremittingly morose movies.) But Egoyan’s formal control and evenhanded compassion for his characters stave off bathos, leaving viewers with unresolved questions and bruised emotions long after the final credits roll.

While hiding out in graduate school from the Vietnam War, I took a course in W.B. Yeats’ poetry taught by a notoriously sadistic professor who marked a classmate’s term paper with the letter M. When she inquired what that grade meant, he replied, “Your writing is that much worse than F.” (The hapless woman revised the essay and was rewarded with a K.) I would have to adopt a similar grading scale to gauge the rankness of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. Near the end of the press screening, one of my colleagues beat a hasty exit, knocking the notebook out of my hands. When I asked why he was leaving in such a rush, he groaned, “I can’t take any more.”

Deconstructing Harry is Allen’s second pastiche of Fellini’s 8 1/2. The first, 1980’s Stardust Memories, was savaged by critics and loathed by the public but, in retrospect, was probably his finest movie. A nakedly autobiographical self-portrait of a filmmaker facing creative and emotional impasses, it bravely addressed the foibles of its creator and his audience. Allen’s fans were stunned by the movie’s revelation that their idol felt trapped in his comic persona and was ambivalent, at best, about their adulation.

In his noxious new effort, Allen plays a novelist, Harry Block, rather than a director. Otherwise, Deconstructing Harry is Stardust Memories’ evil twin. Once again he has cast himself as a destructive neurotic whose artistic success masks an inability to function in life. Inexplicably, now that Allen has been publicly exposed as a perv and has considerably more to answer for, reviewers are hailing his latest movie as an unsparing confession. In truth, it is a coarse, transparently manipulative self-justification.

Deconstructing Harry begins like a third-rate film-school experiment, with a series of cubist edits showing Judy Davis repeatedly entering a Manhattan brownstone. (Annie Ross’ antic 1952 vocalese version of saxophonist Wardell Gray’s bebop anthem “Twisted” plays on the soundtrack.) Allen then cuts to a pastoral sequence, a country-house weekend during which a married man (weaselly Richard Benjamin in an unwelcome acting comeback) has quickie oral and rear-entry intercourse with his sister-in-law (poor Julia Louis-Dreyfus) while his wife awaits him outdoors. This turns out to be a visualized excerpt from one of Harry’s novels based on his illicit relationship with former sister-in-law Davis, which she has read and responds to in a fit of suicidal rage. “You take everyone’s suffering and turn it into gold,” she bellows. “Literary gold!”

The remainder of the movie dovetails episodes from Harry’s wretched life with extracts from his apparently well-received books. These vignettes are laced together by a skimpy plot line: Harry needs to find someone to accompany him to an academic ceremony at which he’s scheduled to receive an honorary degree. Having alienated his three ex-wives, numerous lovers, and his family, the only companions he can come up with are a hooker (Hazelle Goodman) and a casual acquaintance (Bob Balaban).

The comedy, such as it is, rehashes themes Allen ground to dust a decade ago: psychiatrists, Hitler, fear of death, Judaism, Kafka, etc. Many members of the sizable acting ensemble are refugees from previous Allen pictures: Caroline Aaron (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Balaban (Alice), Davis (Husbands and Wives), Mariel Hemingway (Manhattan), Julie Kavner (Radio Days), and Louis-Dreyfus (Hannah and Her Sisters). Even the soundtrack is recycled. The mellifluous 1955 Art Tatum-Ben Webster recordings that enlivened the otherwise moribund September are once again pressed into service.

As in most of his recent pictures, Allen includes celebrity cameos in an attempt to boost marquee value and create the illusion of freshness. The latest recruits include Kirstie Alley, Billy Crystal, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, and Robin Williams. Why such luminaries rush to accept minuscule, thankless parts in projects by a man who seduced his de facto stepdaughter baffles me. The least Allen could do to express his gratitude is create roles that show them to advantage. Casting stolid, white-bread Moore as a born-again Jewish psychiatrist does nothing to enhance her grim filmography. Newcomer Goodman fares better in the first substantial black role in an Allen film—shamefully (and predictably), a whore. His casting of an Asian actress as another prostitute has implications I shudder to contemplate.

Reviewers who are applauding Deconstructing Harry as Allen’s brave, warts-and-all self-exposure must have seen a different movie from what I saw. Not that the picture lacks warts. Its liver-toned cinematography, infantile blowjob and cum gags, repeated references to women as “cunts,” and an emetic quip about an anorexic woman who stuffs a tampon in her nose conclusively demonstrate that Allen does not shrink from ugliness. What’s missing is a convincing sense of candor. In the guise of baring his fettered soul, Harry/Allen excuses himself by suggesting that his artistic achievements compensate for his personal transgressions. The film ends with characters assembled from his life and fiction applauding him, and the flatulent homily, “To be alive is to be happy.”

It is difficult to imagine a life so reprehensible as to be explained, let alone redeemed, by a rancid botch like Deconstructing Harry. I’ve saved the worst for last. Shue is cast as one of Harry’s fans who becomes his mistress. Several times he sternly cautions her not to fall in love with him. (No, this is not one of the “fictional” sequences.) The sight of this wizened, balding, hand-flailing sexagenarian warning the beautiful young Shue against succumbing to his putative charms indicates the depth of Allen’s self-deception. I may not know much about male menopausal delusions, but I can spot one when I see it.CP