Those who have concluded that Woody Allen is a child abuser will not be amused by the premise of Mighty Aphrodite, his latest New York story. Less an earnest defense of his conduct than a mischievous provocation of his detractors, this eminently Allenesque comedy casts Woody as an aging sportswriter who late in life discovers the joys of (adoptive) fatherhood. This alter ego, dubbed Lenny, resists the adoption agenda of his gallery-manager wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), but adores Max when Amanda ignores his protests and adopts the kid anyway. Lenny’s so impressed by his son’s native intelligence, in fact, that he decides to seek Max’s natural mother.
Since Amanda is drifting away from Lenny into the orbit of gallery owner Jerry Bender (Peter Weller), this search has a queasy undertone: Does Lenny want merely to meet Max’s mother, or to sleep with her? As it turns out, the latter wouldn’t be difficult to arrange. Mom is Linda (Mira Sorvino), a part-time porno actress and full-time hooker. Exuberantly vulgar and none too smart, Linda doesn’t prove to be Lenny’s type. Instead, he adopts her too, in a sense, trying to encourage her to give up prostitution. Lenny even finds a potential husband who’s suitably dimwitted: Kevin (Michael Rapaport), a failed boxer who’s decided to return to the wholesome environment of his family’s upstate farm.
As if the echoes of Allen’s real-life drama weren’t enough, the writer/director intercuts the action with commentary from a Greek chorus. Led by F. Murray Abraham (and filmed sometimes in an ancient Roman amphitheater), the chorus begins with a straightforward rendition of Oedipal issues, but soon switches to Borscht Belt gags, soft-shoe routines, and pre-World War II pop standards. As Lenny tries to redeem Linda and salvage his marriage, he’s dogged by such classical eminences as Tiresias (Jack Warden) and Jocasta (Olympia Dukakis).
Aphrodite is not a tragedy, though. As if to demonstrate that his personal travails are far from Sophoclean, Allen has fashioned the film as a blithe comedy, and carefully tied up each plot strand with a happy ending. (Too self-conscious to play this straight, he jokes about the arbitrariness of some characters’ ultimate good fortune.) An interesting message can be read into the plot’s final twist, but mostly the film aspires to the easygoingness of the director’s early movies.
Sorvino has described her part as “just about the greatest dumb blonde role written in the past 25 years, if not ever,” but it’s worth noting that almost none of the film’s characters are too smart. Max’s alleged intelligence aside, Aphrodite depicts Lenny/Allen as the only sharp guy in town. Though as comically nonplussed as any Allen alter ego, Lenny does have an air of self-justification around him; he can’t make everything right, but he’s the only one who’s trying. Indeed, in a sea of dumb proles and superficial swells, he’s a paragon of righteousness: a reformer of whores and a great dad to boot.
Actually, you’ll have to take the film’s word on that latter point. Though Max is the reason for Lenny’s quest, the kid doesn’t get much screen time. Not to overanalyze this anti-Oedipal parable, but is it significant that Aphrodite is a celebration of a consummate father in which the child is almost invisible?
In its first few minutes, The Addiction exhausts the contemporary social issues—AIDS, drug dependence—already invoked by Nadja, last month’s trendy, black-and-white, lower-Manhattan vampire flick. This month’s trendy, black-and-white, lower-Manhattan vampire flick is an Abel Ferrara movie, though, so there’s plenty more. Drunk on cheap metaphor, the director intersperses the adventures of fledgling vampire Kathy Conklin (Lili Taylor) with atrocity footage from My Lai, the Holocaust, and Bosnia, and name-drops Nietzsche, Kierkegaard (neither name is pronounced correctly by any of the film’s characters), Feuerbach, Sartre, Beckett, and Burroughs.
Scripter Nicholas St. John’s basic joke is that Kathy is a philosophy doctoral candidate at NYU, feeding decorously on a fare of 19th- and 20th-century nihilism and existentialism. When she’s grabbed and bitten by Casanova (Annabella Sciorra), she suddenly finds herself changing diets: Human blood becomes a necessity, and human evil is no longer an abstraction. “This is a graveyard,” Kathy announces of the library where she’s spent so much time, announcing her switch from bloodless academics to post-graduate blood sport. (Her new condition even inspires her to finish herthesis.)
With vampirism comes a new consciousness of moral corruption: “We do evil because we are evil,” Kathy decides. “It’s not like we have any options.” She and all people are implicated in that atrocity footage, so when Kathy begins introducing her friends and colleagues to vampirism, she’s doing their self-awareness a favor. “Am I gonna get sick now?” asks an anthropology student Kathy’s just bitten. “No worse than you were before,” her attacker answers.
Shot in a tenebrous Greenwich Village, the film’s only special effect is how black its black-and-white is: Its vampires don’t fly, change shapes, or turn to dust when assaulted with sunlight or a Communion wafer (the latter provided by the Rev. Robert Castle, Jonathan Demme’s Cousin Bobby). There are a few wry touches—the standard Ferrara-soundtrack complement of Schoolly D is supplemented by a chamber piece written by Nietzsche—but Kathy’s cool, affectless demeanor proves more infectious than her bloodlust. The film is only about 80 minutes long, but it seems to last several dark nights of the soul.
Like Strange Days, The Addiction has won points for sheer audacity. Daring to drag some of the century’s greatest crimes into a lurid low-budget art-house thriller is even more of a bravura move than Harvey Keitel’s nakedness—literal and emotional—in Ferrara’s reputation-making Bad Lieutenant. Also like Days, however, this film proves utterly unworthy of its references to larger events. Reasonably effective when indulging jokes about academe or Ferrara’s other films—Christopher Walken appears briefly as a different sort of King of New York, a vampiric one—The Addiction loses it when it pontificates about the human condition. Despite staging a bloody massacre of his own, Ferrara’s meditations on evil are as anemic as those of any dusty philosophy textbook.
The blood is full-color in Copycat, and the evil on display is not bookishly abstract. What’s troubling, however, is not the corruption of its serial-killer villains, who are obviously phony, but of yet another major studio’s enthusiasm for films that glorify the torture and mutilation of women. Like its model, The Silence of the Lambs, Copycat tries to offset its misogyny by enlisting a woman cop to track the killer, but the fact that its threatened protagonists are not the shrieking bimbos customary in low-budget slasher flicks doesn’t make it any less repulsive.
“These guys are like viruses. There’s always some new mutation,” announces criminal psychologist Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) when homicide cops M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) and Ruben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney) seek her help in identifying San Francisco’s latest murderous psychopath. The same could be said of Copycat, which works the smallest of variations on its predecessors. Ann Biderman and David Madsen’s cynical script imagines a serial killer so poised and well-educated in the genre that he can both plan and execute a string of murders that imitate those of famous murderers (the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam, etc.). Such a passion for elaborate scenarios suggests that this guy isn’t really a serial killer at all—maybe he’s a frustrated scriptwriter.
Copycat‘s murderer isn’t the only unoriginal one. Borrowing extensively from Lambs, the movie provides in Monahan a fearless cop with a girlish demeanor (cf. Jodie Foster) and gives its principal killer an imprisoned psychopathic mentor, Daryll Lee Cullum (the always frightening Harry Connick Jr.). It was the latter’s attempt to kill Hudson that rendered the psychologist agoraphobic, a psychic handicap that provides one of the script’s few new wrinkles. With a synchronicity that could only be Hollywood’s, Cullum is now counseling the new killer, but is happy to help his old pal Hudson track his murderous student. Though conducted by video link—and this film is as stuffed with fanciful cybergear as Hackers—this scene replays the face-to-face Foster/Anthony Hopkins colloquies of Lambs.
Once-promising director Jon Amiel is only too willing to rehash the classic texts. With pseudo-12-tone music skittering, his camera stalks Hudson throughout her absurdly fabulous waterfront apartment, following her to the shower as if about to remake Psycho. After a few more lecherously depicted instances of torture and murder, Copycat remakes the booby-trapped-house scene from Speed, stages a hostage situation that shakes the cool Monahan’s confidence, and then cuts to the final showdown between Hudson, Monahan, and their nemesis. (The latter two scenes teach Monahan one of bloodthirsty Hollywood’s essential lessons: Shoot to kill.) Even Copycat‘s epilogue echoes Lambs.
With the commercial success of the overdetermined Seven, it can hardly be argued that Copycat‘s copyists have misread their audience. Clearly there’s a market for films in which evil is both absolute and relentlessly schematic. Perhaps this reflects a simplistic human desire for villains that are simultaneously irredeemable and explicable: With such threats, after all, you need merely figure them out and then shoot to kill. If so, the movie’s representation of triumphant good is as gratuitous as its depiction of intractable evil. At best—and Copycat is far from the best—such films are a distraction from the subtler genuine issues of human wrongdoing.