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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salvation for a Prostitute At the Hands Of Woody Allen

They approached Edmund Kean, the celebrated colossus of the English stage, as he lay on his deathbed, breathing his last. "How is it with you?" they asked, hoping perhaps to comfort him with their concern.

But he waved the question away. "Dying is easy," he said. "Comedy is hard."

True words indeed. And two celebrated recent movies, now available on video in Moscow, demonstrate just how hard this hard art is. Both provide plenty of laughs -- and for that alone can be recommended, of course -- but neither "Mighty Aphrodite," Woody Allen's 1996 obsess-fest, nor "The Nutty Professor," Eddie Murphy's high-tech 1996 remake of the ancient Jerry Lewis hit, manage to escape the clear signs of strain.

Allen's effort is the superior work, in terms of wit, cleverness and cinematic skill. It shows all the admirable marks of careful, well-tooled craftsmanship. On the other hand, so does a Shaker chair, but it doesn't necessarily provide a rollicking good time. "Mighty Aphrodite" suffers from the almost perfunctory quality that has afflicted some -- but by no means all -- of Allen's most recent work. It feels like an exercise, the director keeping his hand in, staying limber for a more substantial film down the road. (And it so happens that his next film, the innovative musical "Everyone Says I Love You," now in theatrical release, is a considerably more accomplished picture.)

The characterizations in "Mighty Aphrodite" are thin, more like sketches, in striking contrast to the many complex and vivid people Allen has brought to screen life in the past. We don't really care about the sportswriter, Lenny (Allen), his art-dealer wife Amanda (Helena Bonham-Carter; well, yes, it does seems a bit unlikely, but Allen's real-life girlfriend is in her mid-twenties, too), or even about Linda (Mira Sorvino), the hooker who is the mother of the child the uptown couple has adopted. Sorvino won an Oscar for her portrayal of the utterly debauched but beguilingly innocent prostitute and porn actress, and she is very good in the role.

The plot offers ripe possibilities for comedy: As his marriage flounders, Lenny becomes obsessed with finding the mother of his adopted son. Then, when he finds her, he becomes obsessed with improving her life -- hooking her up with a nice fella, getting her away from her pimp -- while never revealing to her why he's so concerned with her well-being.

The scenes with Allen and Sorvino are the best in the movie. They have a kind of screwball exuberance that eventually gives way to a sweet (non-sexual) intimacy. But the depiction of Lenny's marital troubles, and Allen's attempt to satirize the slick and sleazy world of art-dealing have very little spark at all. The movie's use of a kvetching Greek chorus, led by F. Murray Abraham, is sometimes effective, sometimes not. But Jack Warden, as the blind seer, Tiresias, contributes an hilarious cameo. All in all, "Mighty Aphrodite" is a very mixed bag, but certainly worth a viewing because, as with all masters of a difficult art, we measure writer-director Allen against his own proven excellence, and very few can match the standard he has set. Not even himself, sometimes.

Murphy doesn't labor under such a long shadow. In fact, he sets new standards for himself in "The Nutty Professor." His performance as scientist Sherman Klunk, the affection-starved, 400-pound nebbish whose experiments turn him into his svelte and smoking alter ego, Buddy Love, is a truly impressive acting feat. Despite being swaddled with acres of special-effects fat, Murphy brings Klunk to life with an endearing sweetness he's never shown any hint of on screen before. And, in one remarkable scene, he portrays the entire Klunk family -- Papa, Mama, Grandma, Sherman and brother Ernie -- sitting down together for a meal that is as uproarious as it is vulgar.

Unfortunately, nothing else in the movie measures up to this tour de force. The film's four screenwriters, which include director Tom Shadyac, show every sign of acute box-office panic, larding (as it were) the script with lame fat jokes, witless sight gags, pointless chases and the kind of loud, please-look-at-me unpleasantries that playground show-offs regard as humor. The writers should have put more trust in Murphy's comic gifts, which already include a healthy dose of earthy vulgarity sure to please the pimple-popping crowd. The result is a wildly uneven work that provides some genuinely funny and touching moments in the midst of much sub-sitcom dross. A movie perhaps best seen at the end of your second bottle of warm Sovietskaya.

Both videos are available at Video Express, located in Post International at 1/2 Maly Putinkovsky Pereulok. Tel. 209-3106.