By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 03, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

When the Woody Allen scandal broke in 1992, I had hopes that it would shake up his art. His movies had grown safe and precious and small, and now that he’d been caught in a sordid embarrassment, perhaps it would free him to be a little raunchier on screen as well. That’s what finally happens in Mighty Aphrodite (Miramax, R), though not in the way I expected. Allen plays a New York sportswriter, Lenny Weinrib, who truckles to the wishes of his art-dealer wife (Helena Bonham Carter) by agreeing to adopt a baby. The marriage loses its luster, and Lenny, in response, becomes obsessed with uncovering the identity of his son’s biological mother. After a bit of detective work, he learns that she’s a young prostitute who has been laboring on the fringes of the porn industry.

The moment that Linda (Mira Sorvino) opens the door of her Manhattan apartment, she’s Lenny’s nightmare: not just a hooker but a dumb, tawdry hooker — a space cadet bimbo without a shred of class. Her pastel peach living room is cluttered with phallic kitsch, her outfits look as if they came off the sale rack of the Showgirls boutique, and she speaks in a weirdly high, flat monotone that makes her sound like a clown on a kids’ TV show. In a word, she’s appalling. Yet she’s the mother of Lenny’s son, and if he can’t stomach the idea that he shares anything with a woman this shallow, this stupid, this low, his revulsion says as much about him as it does about her.

The central gag of Mighty Aphrodite — and it’s a terrific one — is that Linda, precisely because she’s such a dim bulb, is completely, childishly at ease with everything about her life that fills Lenny with horror. Allen uses the sleaze of the sex trade for a series of rudely hilarious comic shocks. Linda keeps making reference to various sordid acts (or to her stage name, Judy Cum) without the slightest idea that what she’s saying could be outrageous to anyone. The casual obscenity liberates Allen’s humor, making it laugh-out-loud funny again. Mighty Aphrodite does flirt with cruelty by scoring points off Linda’s vapidity. Yet there’s a double edge here: Even as the film gets us giggling at her obliviousness, the real joke is how much she keeps Lenny squirming. (Fate seems to have played a cosmic joke on him.)

As Linda, Mira Sorvino has a smile that’s as blank and trusting as her rinky-dink voice. She truly earns comparison to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday: You never know what birdbrained thing Linda is going to say next, yet she’s so utterly herself that she’s irresistible. Linda, in her Warhol-superstar daze, has an exquisite instinct for upsetting the apple cart of propriety. It takes a shrewd actress to make ignorance this beguiling. That voice may be Mira Sorvino’s put-on, but I suspect it will prove her stepping-stone to stardom.

Lenny decides to save Linda from her degraded circumstances in order to save himself — that is, his dignity. He confronts her pimp (Dan Moran), who, in a wild scene, threatens to kill both of them. And he sets her up with a young fellow as stupid and trusting as she is, a palooka (Michael Rapaport) who has starry-eyed dreams of farming onions. Mighty Aphrodite is unabashedly a fable, Woody Allen’s sweet-tempered tale of romantic rescue. The movie features, at regular intervals, a Greek chorus — I mean an honest-to-God chorus of masked, choreographed chanters who comment on the proceedings from a mountaintop theater. The loftiness of these solemn observers is, of course, a joke (their commentary is salted with quaint anachronisms like schmuck). More than that, it’s a sign that Woody Allen’s filmmaking hasn’t quite lost its preciousness.

Even as we’re watching Lenny play yenta to Linda, the film suggests that he harbors unconscious romantic inclinations — that he’s torn between his stifled Upper East Side marriage and the guilt-free sexual attachment promised by a woman he enjoys because she’s so stupidly easy to be with. Had Allen pushed this conflict even further, he might have made a bracing romantic comedy. As it is, he toys with it — cautiously. Helena Bonham Carter, as Amanda, is playing a caricature of a trendy New York careerist. Watching her, I thought, It isn’t Lenny’s marriage that’s faltering; it’s Woody Allen’s ability to portray marriage. The result is that he ends up fudging the question of whether Lenny’s interest in Linda is ultimately paternal or romantic (or both). The two have one astonishingly tender moment together, in which Lenny, at last, appears to be confronting his feelings. But then Allen pulls back. I only wish he’d heeded his most dangerous instincts. When Mira Sorvino’s Linda is on screen, Mighty Aphrodite is alive with daffy erotic glee. Next time Allen should let himself in on the action. B+