Monday, September 15, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989)

"Crimes and Misdemeanors" is perhaps Woody Allen's most ambitious film, and not his most successful. Though it was a substantial critical and popular hit, I found it rather dreary and ineffectual. It's a self-conscious exploration of morality, of whether belief in God or in humanist choices are incompatible, and whether dark crimes -- big and small -- can weigh down our souls like anchors in the ocean.

It's the sort of movie, in fact, where the two main characters, whose stories have paralleled without ever intersecting, bump into each other in the last scene and blatantly discuss the theme of the picture. It's the classic example of telling rather than showing, and I'm of the school that when you tip your hand too much into the light, the audience is quick to check out emotionally and intellectually.

In many ways "Crimes" reminded me of "A Serious Man," another movie by great filmmakers that I disregarded despite the widespread affection with which it was met. Both also focus on Jewish figures whose faith is called into question, though Allen's picture is more about the general question of faith in a higher power, while "Man" is essentially a rumination on Jewish theological imperatives.

Martin Landau received a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards, which is ridiculous for what is so clearly a leading role. He plays Judah Rosenthal, a very successful ophthalmologist who has reached the "great man" point of his career, where he collects awards and salutations in his final years before retirement. He has a loving wife (Claire Bloom) and daughter, a fabulous Long Island mansion, status and respect, and is by all measures a good person who does charitable work.

But he has a secret. For the past two years he's been carrying on an affair with a younger woman, a flight attendant named Dolores (Anjelica Huston). He recently broke it off and she's become unstable, threatening to confront his wife and making all sorts of demands upon him. Dolores appears ready to blow up his life if she can't have him, destroying his marriage and even having him arrested as an embezzler, since he confided in her about some financial improprieties involving the foundation he heads up.

On the flip side is Cliff Stern (Allen), a wannabe documentary filmmaker whose entire existence seems to be built around hollow aspirations for the sort of success Judah takes for granted. His marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) is an empty husk, drained of all passion and joy -- they're just marking time until the inevitable. He spends most of his days watching old movies or trolling book stores, often in the company of the niece he dotes upon.

Cliff is given a huge opportunity to direct a PBS profile of Wendy's brother Lester, a famous television comedy producer and writer. Cliff can't stand his preening, self-adoring brother-in-law, played with full-bore snark and smirk by Alan Alda. (Lester has the habit of interrupting conversations so he can whip out a tape recorder to document his awful, but commercially viable, ideas for shows.)

But Cliff falls hard for Halley (Mia Farrow), a producer on the show. Lester also has an eye for the careful, cautious woman, who's just come out of a nasty divorce. So at first it's unclear if Cliff is wooing her just to spite Lester. But they find a genuine attraction between them while collaborating on Cliff's true labor of love, a documentary about little-known but brilliant philosopher.

The two characters share a lot of the same New York City bandwidth without ever actually tripping over each other, at least until the movie's end. Judah treats Lester's brother Ben (Sam Waterson), a rabbi who is going blind but seems to retains his full vision about the human condition and its perils. The two men are eventually brought together by a wedding that Lester is paying for, as Cliff and Wendy make their final appearance together before announcing their divorce.

It's pretty clear that Allen was using Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" as the basis for a modern riff on the themes of guilt and morality. Judah uses his scuzzy brother (Jerry Orbach) to have Dolores murdered, and then he spends of the rest of the picture anguishing over his terrible actions. He even visits her apartment after the deed is done, ostensibly to collect incriminating photos and journal entries but mostly, we suspect, to gaze upon her dead body and punish himself.

A doubter who grew up in a deeply religious family, Judah begins to feel the weight God's gaze upon him, and wonders if he'll ever be able to see the light again. When a police detective drops by to ask routine questions, he almost confesses his sins upon the spot.

Cliff, on the other hand, is guilty of much less serious acts of immorality -- desired, if not commissioned, infidelity -- and does not feel any remorse over how much he disdains his wife. It's a fairly typical Woody Allen character, full of neurotic bombast and nebbishy charm, and we feel greatly for the little fella when his worst fears are realized and Halley returns from a long assignment in Europe affianced to Lester.

Though it's more or less a straight drama, Allen can't resist throwing in bits of his trademark humor, such as Cliff's edit of the profile about Lester including cutaway shots to Mussolini. Or lamenting about his nonexistent sex life: "The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."

I adored Martin Landau's performance in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," but on the whole I found the juxtaposition with Allen's own character incongruous and unsatisfying. Allen tries to split the difference between two interesting characters, and loses his way.

Supposedly the filmmaker threw out most of the first act while editing the movie, and called back his cast for reshoots. I think the best movie he could've made would have been to write himself out of the picture.

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