What we have in Crimes and Misdemeanors is the first American film comedy about the absence of God. Naturally, it’s from Woody Allen, the director-writer-actor for whom laughs are never enough. That attitude rankles those drawn to Allen’s simple comedies, from his first, Take the Money and Run (1969), to this year’s New York Stories. No matter that Allen’s more complex comedies, the kind suffused with melancholy, are his six masterworks (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, The purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days and Hannah and Her Sisters). The public is drawn most to what makes Woody fun.
Allen, of course, is drawn to what stretches him. Damn the consequences. In the unfairly vilified Stardust Memories, he played a self-hating director besieged by friends, fans and even space aliens to go back to telling jokes. The movie is bitter but also mercilessly honest: Allen wanted out of the gag rut.He spoke at the time of how a filmmaker must “fail miserably a portion of the time. It’s a healthy sign you’re trying to grow. So I’m willing to be publicly humiliated.”
He was. And rightfully. Any discussion of “crimes” against moviegoers must include that trilogy from hell (Interiors, September and Another Woman) in which Allen, in his numbing Ingmar Bergman mode, probed WASP angst. Crimes, his nineteenth film in twenty years as a director, is not free of borrowed insights. (He even uses Bergman’s cameraman Sven Nykvist.) The film’s concerns are intellectual, moral and philosophical — the Big Three of box-office poisons — but Allen’s approach to them is uniquely his own. He chose not to act in his other serious films, fearing his comic persona would undercut his weighty intent. It was a miscalculation he does not repeat this time.
Allen, in one of his strongest performances, plays the pivotal role of Cliff Stern, a struggling documentarian whose subjects are so obscure even PBS won’t touch them. Cliff is stuck in a dead-end marriage to Wendy (the splendidly wry Joanna Gleason), who gripes about Cliff’s failures. He whines about their lack of sex: “The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty.”
Cliff’s wisecrack hides real pain. His wife’s indifference has driven him to seek companionship with his sister’s teenage daughter, the lovely Jenny Nichols (daughter of director Mike Nichols), who shares his passion for old movies. The girl’s divorced mother (Caroline Aaron) has had a disastrous date with a man she met through a personals ad (He climbed on top of me and went to the bathroom”). Cliff is nonplused: the modern age confounds him.
Against his better instincts, Cliff agrees to direct a TV documentary on his wife’s brother Lester (a wittily obnoxious Alan Alda), a Hollywood TV hotshot Cliff can’t stand. Cliff splices in footage of Mussolini to counterpoint Lester’s dictatorial ravings. Lester doesn’t think it’s funny. Someone else does. Cliff thinks he’s found a soul mate in the show’s associate producer, Halley Reed, played by Mia Farrow as a potent blend of serenity and steel. Halley sees the cruel irony in a medium that ignores a great thinker like Professor Levy (Martin Bergmann), Cliff’s idol, and celebrates a gasbag like Lester. Or at least a besotted Cliff thinks she sees it. He’s in for a shock.
Cliff’s Manhattan is filled with small deceptions we all can recognize. But Allen means to demonstrate how these misdemeanors escalate into major crimes. He does so through a parallel story. Cliff’s wife has another brother, Ben’s (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is going blind. Ben’s ophthalmologist, Judah Rosenthal, played with vivid intensity by Martin Landau (Tucker), has own problems. For two years, Judah has deceived his wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom), with a neurotic stewardess named Dolores (Anjelica Huston), Now Dolores, out of misguided passion, is threatening to tell of their affair. Huston is spectacular in the role; she’s an object of beauty and terror. Judah’s attraction is as clear as his need to be rid of her. He confides in Ben, who urges Judah to confess to his wife — unless he can silence Dolores (“Sometimes luck is the best solution”).
Ben and Judah, the man of faith and the man of science unable to cure each other’s ills, make for some clunky Old Testament symbolism, especially when Judah speaks of the “eyes of God” upon him. But this flawed, fascinating movie is nothing less than a series of biblical parables set in modern times. The result is potently funny and powerfully moving. Most movies give us so little mental stimulation that it seems remiss to fault one for occasionally slipping into soap opera and travesty. There’s grandeur in Allen’s vision, and nerve. He’s onto something.
Judah can’t rely on luck or faith. The accumulations of his lifetime are at stake. Instead, he turns to his brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), a man with Mob connections. Though the brothers were raised in the same Orthodox Jewish home, one tells the other that a life can be ended for a price and the other, despising himself, listens.
Moral crises, large and small, are the core of the film. In a world in which God seems to have turned his back and crimes and misdemeanors are going unpunished, expediency has become the norm. Personal integrity is tough to maintain. Still, it’s the film’s one shaft of hope. Allen is not copycatting Bergman anymore. He’s trying to take what he has learned to a place he knows better than Bergman does, a place where the comic and the tragic coexist. With probing intelligence and passionate heart, Allen argues that in these soul-sick times, humor is hard but necessary. Humor can help us see.
Near the film’s end, a friend arranges a date for Cliff’s sister. There’s a catch: He’s in prison. “But only for inside trading,” says the friend, “and when he gets out, he’ll be rich.” The line gets a laugh. The kind that sticks in the throat.The only kind that has meaning for Allen these days. In this risky, riveting film, our most prolific and provocative moviemaker uses his wit to touch a nerve. Crimes and Misdemeanors is so funny it hurts.