Oh how I miss Woody’s output before Soon-Yi got to him… Once upon a time, Allen was known for his prolific output of a comedy roughly once a year, a treasured event for my younger self (even if I rarely truly understood most of the references and jokes) thanks to their completely atypical nature and meticulous craftsmanship.
Here in ‘Mighty Aphrodite’, he meets his (previous) high standard, albeit with a much smaller scope and narrative than the densely populated ‘Everyone Says I Love You’. Mocking the supposed seriousness of the ancient Greek choruses whilst highlighting the very absurdity in modern lives. Here they interrupt and taunt Lenny Winerib (Allen), the stock Jewish, naif who is far too cynical for his own good. Joined by Helena Bonham Carter as his equally neurotic wife Amanda, they adopt a child, Max, but with time their life appears to simply be getting too serious for them, prompting Lenny to seek out Max’s birth mother, the prostitute and porn star Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino).
The story itself is one large gag reel, everything being told through humour where humanly possible; yet where there is real depth or warmth, it is never too consuming, meaning that nothing feels unnecessary or worse structural. Each moment, be it a joke or simple dialogue tells us more about the characters without appearing to affect the tone and speed of the piece as a whole. It is quite a coup that a plot so intrinsically involving the absurd and cynical natures of man never go too far into either, pushing them entirely outside the realms of believability.
The one real issue lies with the overall ease of proceedings, leading to a lull where deeper issues could be explored. The change in focus from Max’s early years and the happy marriage of Lenny and Amanda swaps with a suitably airy and conceivable explanation. Linda notes that he never talks about his family, only asking of hers; of course he does, otherwise he might have to be serious for a moment or require even cleverer (but time consuming in production) dialogue to compensate.
A particular element that was certainly reaching the end of its appeal was Allen as the love=struck protagonist, perhaps it is simply his personal cynicism shining through but naif had at this point in his career become a far less viable description of he who crafted his public persona to meet that of his characters. The ever present and growing age discrepancy between Allen and his paramours is an unspoken Greek tragedy in itself, both in his work and real life. Carter as his suffering wife channels Mia Farrow with such ease that the role, despite its subtle complexities, is not that far removed from the similar characters of other Allen projects. She is a pleasure to watch but far from groundbreaking. However this shining embodiment of the work itself comes from Sorvino’s portrayal of Linda, a woman so dim and daft it only highlights how deft the actress herself is. To infuse such honesty, warmth and humour in a character who never seems to remember to wear pants before she leaves the house is definitely deserving of the Oscar she subsequently won. We rarely laugh at her but with her, a feat by no means small when you consider some of what it is she comes out with.
A minor irritation exists in how Allen never subverts his own snobbery of her lifestyle and crass sense of humour into anything substantial, but Sorvino herself manages to have the same effect, giving class to a woman otherwise completely devoid of it. Aphrodite is perhaps one of Allen’s most lightweight works in tone and concept, but it is no less mesmerizing.