Woody Allen plays a married man and adoptive father who enjoys unprotected sex with a twenty-something call girl in Mighty Aphrodite. The film is a brashly comic provocation, a dare disguised as a doodle. Scandal involving Soon-Yi, Mia Farrow and daughter Dylan has made Allen the O.J. Simpson of cinema — off the hook in court but guilty to much of his audience. Variety bashed the aging auteur (he'll be 60 on Dec. 1) for kissing his young co-star in Aphrodite. In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd saw the Allen character's efforts to reform the hooker, save his marriage and show himself a devoted, responsible and principled father as spin doctoring. She labeled Allen an "irretrievably creepy" propagandist and self-promoter.
Before burning the Woodman at the stake, let's play the evidence card. Mighty Aphrodite is an uneven blend of mirth and malice, but Allen's satire, for which the Times once hailed him, is still aimed at his own self-absorption. Allen's Lenny Wein-rib, a Manhattan sportswriter, does not solicit prostitute Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino) for a Hugh Grant-ish blow job, although she offers. Lenny wants to track down the natural mother of the bright boy child he and wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter, becomingly unleashed from period-film corsets) have adopted. Lenny expects a soul mate, not the adulterous, art-gallery careerist he married. Instead he finds Linda, a dumb blond amazon in dominatrix boots who turns tricks when she's not doing such porn flicks as The Enchanted Pussy under the name Judy Cum. Lenny, out of hubris, not horniness, aims to change her.
Some spin doctoring. If Allen sees himself in Lenny, he sees a selfish egotist who ignores his wife's work, views his idealized son as a trophy and screws up the lives of others by playing God. Enter a Greek chorus, literally, to nail Lenny for the "schmuck" he is. Led by F. Murray Abraham, the chorus tells jokes, sings Cole Porter songs and mocks the interfering Lenny for matching up Linda with Kevin (Michael Rapaport), a young boxer naive enough to believe Lenny's lies that Linda of the high nasal voice and erotic windup toys ("The bishop keeps fucking her in the ass," she says with a squeal) is an old-fashioned girl whose acting credits include Schindler's List.
The film is a showcase for Sorvino (Quiz Show, TV's The Buccaneers), actor Paul's Harvard grad daughter, who gives a sensational performance. She shows startling humor and heart without trading on sentiment. The baby that Linda regrets having given up was the product not of passion but of "a broken condom." Without telling Linda he has adopted her child, Lenny gets her out of hooking (he bribes her pimp with Knicks tickets) and buys her legit acting lessons. Linda is hilarious reading the society-girl role in The Philadelphia Story. "It's not you," says a cringing Lenny. "Would Clint Eastwood play a meek hairdresser?" She forges on, in art and life.
Rapaport (Kiss of Death) also scores strongly as the boxer whose temper flares when he learns of Linda's past. In age and temperament, Allen is far removed from this dim, determined pair, but he generously lets them steal the film without condescending to their cockeyed convictions.
It's the sagging, balding Lenny — Allen does nothing to hide his years — who's morally confused. When Lenny and Linda finally do it, it's at an emotional low point for both of them. Otherwise, Lenny regards the idea of taking on Linda ("I'd need a resuscitator") with the same fear Allen showed in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex when a giant breast chased him across the countryside. Maturity doesn't always come with age, and it's Allen's willingness to face such troubling facts that adds resonance to the wicked fun of Mighty Aphrodite. In the film's "happy" ending (it's more a negotiated truce), the chorus urges Lenny to "keep on smiling," just as the Martians in Stardust Memories pushed him to "tell funnier jokes." It's not likely. The subtext of Mighty Aphrodite is a neurotic's nightmare: A man sees his life as a Greek tragedy while the rest of the world throws stones or just laughs and laughs.