Helena Bonham Carter
F. Murray Abraham
David Odgen Stiers
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
xcusing the fact that he unfortunately stars in the feature and that the movie itself highlights some of his more insufferable filmmaking tendencies, Woody Allen creates one of his most memorable characters in 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite. (Granted, she’s the only character worth remembering within the relatively flat ensemble.) She is Linda, a chipper, dim-witted hooker cum prostitute who as much screams sex as she does bimbo. Played by Mira Sorvino, who received an Oscar for her performance in the film, she’s fully realized from the get-go: uninhibited, likable, susceptible, and approaching an existential crisis.
But she plays a secondary role in the grind of the film. Of total importance is the marriage of Lenny and Amanda Weinrib (Allen and Helena Bonham Carter), which, while initially receiving a spark of renewal thanks to the adoption of a baby boy, has begun souring. As it often goes with sort of mismatched married couples who think the inclusion of a child is going to better everything, as the tot grows, the more tensions heighten. This is likely because Amanda’s so much younger than Lenny, and because Lenny, middle-aged and square, is incapable of having a good time without fretting for a few minutes first.
Since much about his life seems to be falling apart, Lenny decides that he cannot rest until he learns who mothered his son. There seems to be no real reason backing this desire, our rationality telling us that he’s simply looking to close an open door but our hearts deciding that he might even be looking for romance.
Enter the boy’s mother Linda, a Miss Piggy-voiced sex worker. Upon their first meeting, she treats Lenny as she would any other john. But after Lenny expresses genuine interest in her — without actually clarifying why — he becomes her confidant, and perhaps the sole person in her life who sees her as a struggling human being and not an object to be exploited.
Mighty Aphrodite, then, quasi-emulates the story of Pygmalion (1913), which famously saw an older, well-off man turning a lower class beauty into a real lady. Pygmalion, of course, is inherently creepy — how easy it is to dislike any story that sees a man with a superiority complex stepping into a woman’s life deciding that it’s his task to change her — so Mighty Aphrodite can be, too. Consider: Lenny knowingly inserts himself into the everyday existence of a prostitute while in the midst of martial problems, risking everything. To add insult to injury, he eventually sleeps with her.
The logic’s shaky, and so is Lenny (he is, predictably, like every character Allen has ever played). But Sorvino is so exceptional, revamping the done-to-death hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, whatever doesn’t ring true in Mighty Aphrodite is made up for as an effect of her performance. So the movie is only subpar Allen, but subpar Allen circa 1995 is a lot better a thing than subpar Allen in the 2010s. I’ll take it gladly. But without Sorvino we wonder where it’d sit in the filmmaker’s canon: Would we even be talking about it without its sparkling supporting actress? B