Film: Mohair for middlebrows

Woody Allen's fluffy new film exposes his aversion to Greek tragedy and lower-class stupidity. By Adam Mars-Jones; MIGHTY APHRODITE Woody Allen (15)
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Cinema has been around for a century now, and Woody Allen has been directing films for a quarter of that period. It's reasonable to expect something like a mature style, even a late style. It's true that Allen's early influences - Bergman, Fellini - aren't detectable any more, but not because they've been made part of a stronger artistic personality. They've just fallen away, leaving middlebrow competence. The camera will go for a little stroll round people talking at a dinner table, but it doesn't expect to find anything energetic or surprising. In Allen's new film, Mighty Aphrodite, the arrival of Dixieland jazz on the soundtrack announces a mild excursion into slapstick, just as it did in Sleeper, back in 1973.

The comedy in the new film has two targets, one high and one low, both obvious. The high target is Greek tragedy, so Allen uses a masked chorus in sombre draperies to comment on the action. Nobody ever thought Greek tragedy was a sensible art form, exactly, and the chorus has some routine fun travestying it. They intone "Certain thoughts are better off unthunk." They call upon Zeus and, when he's not there, they leave a message on his answering machine.

The other target is stupidity in low-class people. Lenny (Woody Allen) is convinced that the mother of his adopted son Max must be somebody special. In fact, she turns out to be Linda (Mira Sorvino), who makes porno movies under the nom de jouissance of Judy Kum.

Linda lives in what the director has referred to as "a typical whore's apartment". It seems unlikely that he is claiming a great deal of knowledge of the interior spaces belonging to workers in the New York sex industry. What he means is actually a stereotypical whore's apartment. The difference is instructive (and central to the functioning of cinema), between the things you know because you've experienced them, and the things you know somehow all the more intensely because you haven't.

Almost every object in Linda's apartment is in some way obscene, from the kitchen clock (don't ask) to her treasured antique pocketwatch (don't ask) to the aeration system of her aquarium (don't ask). Linda's voice is an unmodulated flat whine. Her voluptuous body commands desire while her dress sense eliminates any possibility of sexual respect.

You can almost hear Allen and his costume designer (Jeffrey Kurland) chortling over the sketches for Linda's wardrobe. Pink mohair! Hawaiian pedal pushers! High-heeled espadrilles! A purple dress that wouldn't look especially tarty if it didn't have gauze cut-outs opening on to her breasts! She should wear a neck chain with her name on it. People like that always wear chains with their names on them. People like what? Like hookers in the movies.

Mira Sorvino is kind enough to describe Linda as "the greatest dumb blonde role written in the past 25 years". She went to Philadelphia before the filming and spent three days "living in character" (don't ask me why, it's an actor thing), which presumably means acting unintelligent while wearing spike heels, fluffy sweaters and leopardskin prints rather than having sex for money. She was surprised to find that people "responded much better to her than they do to me". It may be that she has missed the point, if she assumed before the fact that the general population feels threatened by sexually available women with no brains.

Linda is saturated with sex but also somehow erotically vacant. When she says to Lenny, "You didn't want a blow job so I thought at least I'd get you a tie," we know even before the lurid item is unwrapped that men will never want her phone number so she can give them ties. She should stick to what she knows - and, maybe, so should Woody Allen.

Linda has her pathos moments, of course, about the son she never knew, but even here she is relentlessly patronised. When she says, "There's not a day that doesn't go by that I don't wake up thinking about him," audiences are being encouraged to think that she's a sweet kid, really a sweet kid. It's almost a shame she can't handle multiple negatives. Almost a shame. But not quite.

The plot calls for Lenny to fix Linda up with someone equally stupid - namely Kevin (Michael Rapaport), a boxer who doesn't know his left from his right and worries about whether Linda is spelled with an er or a ur. The two of them go in for some outstandingly hollow dumb dialogue, while they flirt: "I bet you're hung like a horse," from her, to which he replies "Yeah, I can ride a horse." Woody Allen allows his actors to depart from the written dialogue, a benign dispensation with the fringe benefit that Allen himself is surer than ever to have the drollest lines.

Allen's character in Mighty Aphrodite is always using words around these people that they can't understand, words like "superfluous" and "fellatrix", which means either that he's stupid in a sophisticated way or that he needs constantly to remind them of the dumbness he is seeking to alleviate. Lenny is a variant of Allen's long-standing persona, a man who can't believe in his own happiness and almost loses it as a result.

Latent in the situation of the film is a meditation on heredity vs environment, resolved in favour of the second. Max is wonderful because he is being brought up by wonderful people - clever, well-off people. But it seems that only the unformed babies of the lower classes profit by being rescued from circumstance. Yes, Lenny can teach Linda how to respect herself and others, to give and receive love, but she must find her own level. She must marry and move away from New York. This is a happy ending on her terms, but anyone who has seen Woody Allen's films over the past quarter century knows that leaving New York is by definition an idiotic act. Anybody who can be happy away from Manhattan doesn't deserve anything better.

n On release from tomorrow