Had you told me in 1996 that the same Mira Sorvino who played a teary, betrayed lover in the movie Beautiful Girls had won an Oscar the previous year for a Woody Allen film, well, I would not have believed you. Sorvino's character in Beautiful Girls was sloppy, and a little pathetic, and completely off the radar of what my college roommates all loved about that movie (brotherhood, homecoming, growing up). Now, 12 years later on, married and settled, I find Sorvino's character in BG a lot more relate-able. All of which leads me to Mighty Aphrodite.
Recently, I decided to better my understanding of one of the elder statesmen of American film, Woody Allen. When I began researching which films to start with, I found a lot of commentary recommending Allen's 1995 picture, Mighty Aphrodite. And while I knew that Mira Sorvino had a major role and had won an Oscar for her performance, I was not prepared for how much I enjoyed her performance as a prostitute longing for the American Dream.
But let me back up.
The story is fairly simple (it is based on the legend of Pygmalion – interestingly, so is Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady) a couple adopt a son who turns out to be a child prodigy. Over the course of time, as the child grows, the marriage falls apart. The wife begins having an affair, while the husband becomes somewhat obsessed with finding the boy's birth mother. Naturally, the birth mother turns out to be a prostitute.
From there, the story becomes an exploration of the urge to help others versus the desire to please onself, replete with a Greek chorus intoning observations and warnings to the lead character.
With all the elements in place, Allen does a great job of low-key directing, using his trademark medium shots in lieu of close-ups, as well as coaxing an over-the-top but believable performance from his cast. The dialogue is the best form of wit in that the humor comes through the situation being developed and the characters interpretation of events rather than set-ups, insults, or puns. Neither Sorvino's prostitute, nor Helena Bonham Carter's Amanda are played for sympathy, rather, they are played as people who have made, or are making mistakes, and dealing with the consequences like grown-ups by learning from and moving past those events into new situations.
The only low point for me was the denouement wherein we learn what has happened to all our characters in the months after the climax of the film. While the body of the film was able to take cliches like a well-meaning hooker and a neurotic adoptive dad and mix them into something fresh and interesting, the final moments of the film fall back into overly-familiar territory. Indeed, the final punchline can be seen coming and should have been left out altogether.
However, although the denouement is somewhat trite, the gentle good-humor of the film and engaging cast create an understated, warm film about love and sex and how they sometimes meet.