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MOVIE REVIEW : Will Success Spoil Allen’s ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’?

In a contemporary movie world where, too often, technological bravura is wedded to moral vacuity, let’s give thanks again for Woody Allen. He may not have all the answers, but he can make sweet, sad and hilarious music out of the questions.

In the brainy, poignant “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (at selected theaters), Allen splits his private world into two equal halves--the funny and the fatal, the dreamy and the real. On a simple level, he’s joining the two kinds of movies he’s made since 1978’s “Interiors” into a kind of seriocomic fugue or jazzy sonata.

On another level, he’s juxtaposing two kinds of moral dilemmas: some simple (sexual and professional peccadilloes), some more cataclysmic.

One half of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” follows a rich ophthalmologist, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), who is besieged by the mistress (Anjelica Huston) he’s trying to discard as he decides to silence her with murder. The other half has a nebbishy new Woody persona, threadbare documentary film maker Cliff Stern, enamored of Halley, a co-worker (Mia Farrow), who’s also being romanced by his hated, and successful, brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda).

Success is Cliff’s bete noire and the film’s as well. It’s a movie about how success poisons you, corrupts your values--and, in Cliff’s case, how envy of success poisons you too. The two stories only intersect briefly, mostly at parties that bring together the two clans, the Rosenthals and Cliff’s in-laws. But in a way, both men are the same character, split: lecherous dreamers obsessed with moral questions, the past and heritage. Cliff films Jewish philosophers. Judah returns in reverie to the dinner-table moralizing of his father, a rabbi who chooses faith over truth. The movie, more skeptical, chooses truth--but remains nostalgic for faith’s simple joys.

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Self-destructive Cliff keeps his idealism, his sensibility. Clinging to romantic dreams at old Hollywood movies at the Bleecker Street Cinema with his young niece (Jenny Nichols), he sabotages himself by juxtaposing Lester, in a TV documentary, with shots of Mussolini and Francis the Talking Mule. There’s a pathos in Allen’s acting here that he doesn’t always achieve, a sadness beneath Cliff’s tart quips. He’s an aging clown, his innocence ravaged and fissured. And the parallel plot--Judah’s murder--is the shadow behind Cliff’s story.

It’s also a great antidote to a pop infidelity hit like “Fatal Attraction,” which turned its audience into a howling lynch mob. Landau, Huston and Jerry Orbach give the story a dark, pathetic edge, especially Landau, whose quietly satanic features are held in a strange, soft, falsely compassionate mask. When Cliff’s face crinkles with disgust at his sister’s S&M; story and says that it’s the worst thing he ever heard, we know he’s wrong. There is much worse.

Allen has often been criticized for draining all the humor out of movies like “September” and “Another Woman,” inflating them into frosty, WASPy Bergman pastiches, with none of the robust, self-kidding wit of his Jewish comedies. But in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” there’s a crucial difference. Both worlds are Jewish, filled with the same things: infidelity, betrayal, hypocrisy and the perils of success.

And where “Hannah and His Sisters” ended happily at Thanksgiving, punishing vice, rewarding the virtuous, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (MPAA-rated PG-13) pushes us toward chaos and the dark, with its major moral spokespeople either blind or dead.

In a random or cruel world, where we are defined by every choice we make, these are the compensations: friends, family, love, art. And, surprisingly, this becomes a powerfully affirmative coda. Like a match flickering bravely in the midst of howling darkness, it casts a pure little flame. Does it break? Does it bend? Either way, we can laugh.


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