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IN HER GENES

The whore with a heart of gold and the punchy fighter with a rosin bag for a brain are not exactly new movie types--not even for that high Manhattan intellect Woody Allen. So when we meet them again in Allen's new movie, Mighty Aphrodite, we're tempted to apply the same kind of knowing shorthand to them that we apply by now to more familiar Allen characters--the ones who sip $50 merlot while dissecting their romances in tony East Side cafes, then slip away to the beach house in Southampton.

The real surprise (although it comes most naturally) is that Linda, the movie's wonderfully profane hooker, who is played by a big blonde named Mira Sorvino, and Kevin, Michael Rapaport's dumb palooka, have more life in their little fingers (not to mention other body parts) than the rest of the film's upper-middle-class worriers put together.

This despite Allen's obvious condescension.
The man may have proven over the years that he's a master of comedy and the movies' most deft chronicler of urban neurosis. But he's also the kind of social-climbing snob who pays attention to the pompous drivel you hear at SoHo gallery openings and in film-festival lobbies. So when a bawdy streetwalker and a stone-faced pug--clearly his social inferiors--steal this film from Allen's over-intellectualized sportswriter and his soulless, art-crowd wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter), he looks more baffled than pleased--as if he outsmarted himself. So be it.

The central plot device of Mighty Aphrodite is the comic friction between Allen's fretting, uptight Lenny Weinrib and the free-spirited working girl, Linda, after some frantic but inexplicable research reveals that this amazon poured into a miniskirt and spike heels is the mother of the little boy he and his wife have adopted. Right there, you can't help remembering that Woody Allen knows more about adopted children than he cares to discuss. Is this a little joke at his own expense? An ironic twist? Whatever.

"Are you my three o'clock?" Linda asks Lenny when they first meet at the door of her gaudy apartment, then proceeds to treat him like a nervous customer. What a nightmare. Lenny is the kind of shlub who recoils in terror from hookers while feeling superior to them, so the scene proceeds with some comic unease. Naturally, he never lets Linda in on his secret motive, so we are subjected to his every horrified reaction when, in the course of their platonic friendship, Linda matter-of-factly relates the details of her career, which has included star billing as "Judy Cum" in a minor epic called The Enchanted Pussy.

Ever the square, and fearful of how his son will turn out, Lenny is far more interested in messing around with Linda's genes than with Linda. But an ambiguity looms up here: The cynic in you suspects that Lenny (if not Woody) is running dirty movies of Linda in his mind. Even if he's not, he's no more appealing than any other social engineer roaming around in the lives of strangers. Lenny's disconsolate wife (what else but "Amanda"?) is even less likable. When an oily art dealer (Peter Weller) puts moves on her, you hope she succumbs: She deserves this awful phony even more than she deserves her bumbling husband.

Give Allen his usual high marks for complexity, though. Part of him is Lenny and part of him knows Lenny is a fraud. So he's installed an elaborately costumed Greek chorus in an ancient amphitheater, led by F. Murray Abraham and Olympia Dukakis, to kibbitz on the story's progress in general and to admonish Lenny for his follies in particular--just as the Bogart character did way back in Play it Again, Sam. The idea works beautifully: The chorus's repertoire includes bits of fractured Euripides, outbursts of jazzy harmony (credit the Dick Hyman Chorus), mock-Freudian jokes and little wiseguy observations that bridge the gap, in classic Allen style, between ancient Athens and postmodern New York. Zeus, we learn, has an answering machine. Beleaguered Lenny is "trying to play God." The other gems I'll leave for you to discover.

Meanwhile, in his quest to reinvent the formidable and likable Linda, Lenny fixes her up with the clumsy boxer, Kevin, whose real desires are an old-fashioned wife and a farm upstate. Kevin's even more appalled than Lenny when he stumbles over Linda's credits, and Allen's slightly appalled by him. But this filmmaker remains a brass-bound idealist beneath that cloak of Bergmanesque anxiety and arty skepticism, so he still can't live without happy endings. We get another one here, neatly packaged.

Those who feel Allen went slumming in Broadway Danny Rose and Bullets Over Broadway are bound to have their suspicions confirmed here. He doesn't seem entirely comfortable rooting around in the gutter, even for his own comic purposes. So when Sorvino lights up Mighty Aphrodite with sexual energy and frank life force, she simply bowls him off the screen. Of course, art and reality don't always coincide: Before casting Sorvino as a girl of the streets, Allen had to know that she was not only the daughter of actor Paul Sorvino but an honors graduate from Harvard in Chinese studies. That must have been a constant comfort to him.

 
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