Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
While Woody Allen achieved no Oscar victories for himself during the Nineties, his actors got some awards attention. To be fair, the Woodman did get nominated a number of times, but he took home no prizes. His performers also received a few nominations, but only a couple of them departed the ceremonies with trophies. Dianne Wiest snagged a Best Supporting Actress bauble for her wonderfully hammy turn in 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, and Mira Sorvino did the same a year later for Mighty Aphrodite.
I wish that I could indicate that I agreed with the Academy’s appraisal of Sorvino’s work, but unfortunately I can’t. In fact, if asked to find something positive to say about any part of Mighty Aphrodite, I come up short. It stands as one of the most grating pieces Allen ever committed to film.
Aphrodite follows Lenny Weinrib (Allen) and his wife Amanda (Helena Bonham-Carter), a couple going through some rough times in regard to their relationship. Their sex life is suffering, and they seem very disconnected. Eventually they decide to adopt a child, and they get a bright and vivacious boy they name Max (played by a few youngsters, but Jimmy McQuaid handles most of the work). His presence adds some meaning to their relationship, but Lenny becomes obsessed with finding the boy’s biological parents. He can’t understand who would give up such a fine child, so he attempts to locate his mother. After using some sneaky means, he gets the name of the mother, though finding her is anything but simple.
After much detective work, eventually he does so. Linda Ash (Sorvino) turns out to be an aspiring actress who dabbles in porn films and also works as a prostitute. Despite those career choices, she seems like a bright and bubbly personality with little ill will, and Lenny immediately takes a liking to her. Actually, it appears pretty clear that he has a crush on her, but he’s unable to go beyond some vague feelings.
Most of the film follows their relationship, and Lenny also attempts to “save” Linda from her life of whoredom. She’s had incredibly bad luck with men, so he tries to set her up with a winner and picks aspiring boxer Kevin (Michael Rapaport). The rest of the film watches this relationship and also shows what happens with the leads.
I suppose that Aphrodite really wasn’t a terrible movie as a whole. Many Allen stories possessed the potential to offer compelling tales, and the same applied to it. The basic plot was sound, and the burgeoning relationship between Lenny and Linda merited attention.
However, Allen thrust his pretensions to the fore, and these combined with some additional factors to undermine the film. For one, in the movie’s greatest misstep, Allen insisted on using an actual Greek chorus to vocally influence Lenny throughout the flick. When I say “actual Greek chorus”, I mean that the actors were dressed in period garb and used in a classical fashion.
This concept started as annoying and got worse from there. I can think of few movie gimmicks that came across as more pretentious and obnoxious. The chorus added absolutely nothing to the film and only made it painful to watch. I cringed every time these actors re-entered the scene; they took Aphrodite down many pegs.
Not that it would have been terribly intriguing nonetheless, partially due to the actors. On the positive side, Allen seemed a bit more restrained and likable than usual, as he kept his mass of tics and neuroses under control for the most part. In addition, Michael Rapaport appeared reasonably effective as Kevin; the character was saddled with too many awkwardly written dumb guy gags, but Rapaport created a decent sense of personality nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the two female leads caused some problems. I have no idea how Sorvino won an Oscar for her performance as Linda; the voters must have been too busy staring at her admittedly lovely body to notice what an annoying character she created. Granted, I tended to root for Linda, if just because she seemed like a nice person, but Sorvino played her in such a mannered and self-conscious way that I never really bought her in the role. That cartoony voice she adopted really harmed the character as well; her vocal intonations made it impossible for us to see Linda as a real person.
Still, at least Sorvino wasn’t saddled with the role of Amanda. Bonham-Carter featured an unconvincing American accent as she poured on the bohemian attitude. Before long, I found it impossible to believe that anyone could ever have liked this annoying woman. Allen’s featured a lot of obnoxious artsy types in his films, but Amanda may take the prize as the most horrible of the bunch.
As with many Allen films, Mighty Aphrodite had some potential but it collapsed due to the execution. Allen saddled the flick with too many self-consciously gimmicky ideas, and the story couldn’t survive the weight of these notions. In the end, Aphrodite became nothing more than yet another missed opportunity.