The likelihood of American director Woody Allen’s returning to the simple pleasures of pure, crowd-pleasing comedy seems more remote with each passing year. Aside from a brief flight into comic fantasy with Oedipus Wrecks—his hilarious contribution to last spring’s movie anthology New York Stories—Allen seems to have spent much of the past decade struggling to reconcile his gift for comedy with his love for drama. He succeeded in striking a popular compromise between the two with 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. But his strictly serious movies, from Interiors (1978) to Another Woman (1988), have been too austere. In his new movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen tries yet another approach, one that is more audacious than ever.
It is actually two movies in one—cutting back and forth between two stories. One is a drama, the other a comedy. Only the themes overlap. Each story has its own set of characters and, although they are related, the characters rarely cross paths. The experiment is not entirely successful, but it is engrossing. Switching back and forth between two story lines creates an unusual dramatic tension. By turns funny and forlorn, Crimes and Misdemeanors exhibits an intriguing split personality.
The 19th movie that he has written and
directed, Crimes and Misdemeanors is the most ambitious. It has the multiple characters and moral dilemmas of a Russian novel. And with a title that makes a flip allusion to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it tackles big questions: Can anyone really get away with murder? Does God reward good and punish the wicked? Is the universe a benevolent place?
Both the comic and dramatic plots revolve around Allen’s favorite theme—romantic betrayal. The dramatic story focuses on a wealthy Jewish ophthalmologist named Judah (Martin Landau). Married for 25 years to Miriam (Claire Bloom), Judah is trying to end a twoyear affair with a younger woman. But the object of his fatal attraction, Dolores (Anjelica Huston), is not about to be abandoned without a struggle. A high-strung, vindictive woman, she accuses Judah of lying about his love for her. She threatens to confront his wife and expose some of his shady financial dealings.
Judah desperately seeks a solution. He seeks advice from one of his patients, a rabbi who is going blind (Sam Waterston). And he is haunted by flashbacks to his childhood, by visions of his father telling him, “The eyes of God see all; there is absolutely nothing that escapes His sight.” As Judah’s moral dilemma escalates, the story acquires a compelling momentum. But, despite a solid performance from Landau, there is a stilted quality to the drama—and a sense that something is missing.
But then, there is only so much room for two
stories in one movie. And the comic plot gets equal time. It features Allen in a classic pose— an awkward, sexually frustrated intellectual trying to defy overwhelming romantic odds. Parodying his own eccentricity as a film-maker, Allen casts himself as Clifford, a maker of obscure documentaries on such subjects as leukemia and toxic waste. Clifford’s pompous brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda), is a rich and famous TV producer. Swallowing his contempt for Lester, Clifford agrees to film a documentary portrait of him for a TV series. In the process, he falls in love with a producer named Hally (Mia Farrow). Eager to escape from a sexless marriage, Clifford shyly courts her. But he soon finds himself competing with Lester.
Alda creates a terrific caricature of a vain show-business shark. At parties, Lester inter! rupts conversations to dictate movie-of-the| week ideas into a pocket tape recorder. Crimes I and Misdemeanors bristles with resentment against the power and glamor of contemporary Hollywood. At one point, Clifford shows Hally some clips of a documentary that he is filming about an elderly philosophy professor. “No limos, no bimbos, no awards,” says Clifford. “This guy’s just a thinker.”
Meanwhile, Allen expresses his nostalgia for Hollywood’s lost innocence with a series of scenes showing Clifford escorting his young niece to vintage movies. Each time they leave the theatre, he leaves her with a wry piece of fortune-cookie wisdom. The comic episodes punctuate the movie at regular intervals—part of the packaging that seems designed to make the serious drama more palatable. In the comedy, Allen is a comforting presence, using his onscreen character to dish out the color commentary; in the drama, the characters are on their own, left to cope with a godless universe.
On paper, the separate story lines of Crimes and Misdemeanors may seem unrelated. But both raise the same moral issues. Both ask how evil can triumph over good, how stupidity can defeat intelligence. And the two protagonists—Judah and Clifford—are briefly brought together at the ending. Despite some reassuring platitudes, the movie’s conclusions are relatively bleak. “If you want a happy ending,” Judah tells Clifford, “you should think about seeing a Hollywood movie.”
The comment reflects Allen’s own disdain for Hollywood values. Through Clifford, he still identifies with a struggling artist’s resentment towards those who are successful and famous—ironic, considering that Allen is both. He has the rare privilege of being able to make his movies as he pleases—and get them distributed. Yet, amid the blaze of big-budget action movies, he is like a misanthropic librarian at a noisy carnival looking for a quiet place to think. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the funny, short guy with glasses is still trying to get the girl. But as time goes by, he seems more infatuated by the pursuit of big ideas—a romance that can be even more frustrating.
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