Woody Allen and Helena Bonham Carter are a more-or-less happily married couple who are childless. She doesn’t want to bear a baby (or can’t, I can’t remember) but is eager to adopt. Woody is opposed to it … until he has the child home, when he becomes wildly infatuated with him. But as the boy gets older he becomes obsessed with finding the birth mother. He does, and it is Mira Sorvino (who won a well-deserved Supporting Oscar for this), a prostitute and part-time porn actress. I would be tempted to describe her as the whore with a heart of gold, but the performance is so much more complicated than that. Mira is absolutely brilliant. It’s true she is not a hardened woman, but she’s seen it all, and more or less just deals with it. There is a wide-eyed innocence as she describes being butt-fucked and sucking on two black men at the same time, and says “And it was at that moment I knew I wanted to be an actress.” She does this all in an almost monotone high voice, one line delivered just like all the others, no matter the content. And it works very, very well.
That’s enough plot. It’s a great story, full of fun and pathos, but there a thousand films like that. What so often sets a story apart for me is the method of telling it, and here Woody shows sheer genius. From the opening scene the movie is narrated by a Greek chorus, in an ancient theater. They begin pompous and portentous, but soon segue into talkative, informal dialect, and several times they break into song. F. Murray Abraham is the chief of them, but there is also Cassandra, and Jack Warden as a street bum and Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes. This is just so wonderful, as Abraham and the chorus show up in New York to warn Woody of his folly every step of the way. Naturally, in the nature of Greek tragedy, he never listens to them.
The musical numbers are terrific, and climax with the whole chorus singing and dancing a cappella to “When You’re Smiling.” It was so beautiful and funny I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. This is the work of Woody’s longtime collaborator Dick Hyman and the choreography of Graciela Daniele. They should have had Oscar nominations, too.