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COMMENTARY : Woody Allen Keeps the Faith : ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ tears down the wall between his serious and comic sides

To you, I’m an atheist.... To God, I’m the loyal opposition. --Sandy Bates in “Stardust Memories”

Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a comedy about moral crises, a romance about alienation, a tragedy about sexual high jinks . . . and also, probably, one of the watershed films of his career. Watching it reminds you of a suggestion by George Bernard Shaw: If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh, or they’ll kill you.

That’s advice that Allen usually follows--making funny and veracious sport out of his sexual hang-ups in “Annie Hall” or “Play It Again, Sam,” sending up soulless technology in “Sleeper,” kidding revolution in “Bananas,” satirizing show business in “Broadway Danny Rose” or “Radio Days,” and elegantly ribbing the poses and neuroses of urban society in “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

In these films, Allen deftly deploys his classic persona--the nervous, spaniel-eyed nebbish in excelsis consumed with lust and guilt--through a string of keenly funny fables. It’s when he tries to tell the truth straight up, without jokes, that he alienates some critics and audiences.

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To his detractors, movies like “Interiors,” “September” or “Another Woman” are his “lyceum” efforts, earnest stabs at high art. They’re tipsy with Ingmar Bergman pretensions, overly genteel and overly Gentile. When Allen stifles his humor in these movies, we sometimes sense it as a conscious repression, as if the Bergman influence were a stiff tux that he had donned, determined to choke back the comic impulses welling like subversive burps beneath his cummerbund.

That’s one reason “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a key movie. It tears down the walls that often seem to exist between Woody Allen, serious artist and truth-seeker, and Woody Allen the super-spritzer, whose wit deflates the pompous and needles the phony. He’s been dogged by this problem since his “Annie Hall” Oscar in 1977: how to reconcile his own moral disquiet and high artistic aspirations with his talent to amuse. In the past, he’s done it by shading moods within a single film, as in “Manhattan” or “Hannah,” or by imbuing comic fantasies with unusual poignancy and intensity, as in “The Purple Rose of Cairo.”

Here, he does something different. He imagines two entirely different stories--one dramatic, one comic--then juxtaposes them, as if each were acting out, in a different key, the issues embedded in the other. Both stories focus on infidelity, sexual peccadilloes and moral dilemmas. Both raise the question of whether there is any justice--indeed, any God at all--and both center on urban Jews with similar roots. One, Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), is a wealthy ophthalmologist; Cliff Stern (Allen) is a threadbare documentary film maker. Judah’s story is near-melodrama: Under the advice of his black sheep brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach), this philandering philanthropist gradually decides to murder a troublesome mistress (Anjelica Huston). Cliff’s is vintage funny-sad Woody Allen: A gorgeous would-be TV producer (Mia Farrow) is pursued by both Cliff the married loser and his successful brother-in-law, Lester the TV sitcom king (Alan Alda).

Infidelity has been at the core of most of Allen’s movies since “Interiors.” But here, he carries the consequences of romantic betrayal farther than he ever has, right into the killing, self-justifying rage that hums underneath a morally vacuous pop hit like “Fatal Attraction.” Judah is the outwardly benevolent man driven to awful crimes. And much of what he does rhymes with the absurd, self-defeating misdemeanors of Cliff’s world.

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Cliff, the idealist, pokes into dark corners with his camera. Judah, the eye physician, envelopes himself in darkness. Cliff retreats into movies and dreams. Judah finally embraces what sleazy Jack keeps calling the “real world"--of murder, lies and manipulation. The coda where Judah and Cliff finally meet--at a wedding party for the daughter of Lester’s other brother, a blind rabbi--makes it clear that one man’s reality is another’s nightmare, one’s happy ending another’s tragedy.

It’s a tricky balancing act. Cliff’s sections are hilarious; if the audience laughs at all during Judah’s, it may be out of nervousness. But Allen brings it off. There’s a parity here between the excellent performances of Landau and Huston in one mode and Allen, Farrow and Alda in another.

Lester is a sly mixture of three Lears--the TV pedigree of Norman, the deadpan absurdity of Edward and the prideful fury of the King. This may have been a part Alan Alda was born to play; he and Allen nail this smarmy, self-justifying hustler to the wall. As Lester stoops over in a condescending slump that suggests his spine is on a hinge, nimbly juggling flattery, spitting inane memoranda for TV show plots into a mini-recorder, he obviously sees himself as the tycoon with taste, the sellout with soul. Even his constantly repeated comic credo is absurd: “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not.” (Translation: Comedy should never draw blood.) He’s the final expression of Allen’s career-long contempt for “Going Hollywood,” the hyperbolic anti-L.A. cracks that often amuse or delight his many West Coast admirers.

But in “Crimes,” Allen goes for bigger game than Lester--or Los Angeles. Judah and Lester are winners, Cliff a loser. By schematizing their stories like this, Allen delivers a crushing blow to a cherished cultural myth of the ‘80s: that success is its own justification, that gilded ends justify sordid means. And setting this moral struggle in a world predominantly Jewish, abandoning the WASPy prototypes of his earlier dramas, gives the story a new moral charge. (If there is no eye of God in the world of “Crimes,” there’s still the eye of Sven Nykvist’s camera, with its chilly light bathing Allen’s intricately choreographed long takes. And that eye, fiercely and lovingly, sees all.)

Throughout his career, Allen has been, like his own creation Leonard Zelig, a chameleon. Many of his movies suggest other movies or literary works: “Take the Money and Run” is born out of Warner Bros. gangster classics; “Sleeper” out of “2001" and “Clockwork Orange"; “Love and Death” out of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lean and Bergman; “Stardust Memories” out of “8 1/2"; “Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” out of Shakespeare and “Smiles of a Summer Night"; “Hannah and Her Sisters” out of “Fanny and Alexander,” “Anna Karenina” and “Strange Interlude"; “Radio Days” out of “Amarcord,” and “Another Woman” out of “Wild Strawberries.”

But “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is peculiarly his own. We can sense echoes of Strindberg, O’Neill, the Bergman of “Winter Light” and “Shame.” But the resolution and form are uniquely Woody Allen’s.

It’s not a perfect film. It has too obvious symbolism, thin writing for Sam Waterston’s rabbi, and overly stiff staging in the first Judah-Jack conspiracy scene. You also might wonder why Lester, after firing Cliff, is so mystified that he dislikes him.

But it’s still a film that stands apart. Within an American cinema that, for a decade, has seemed preoccupied with false heroics and the pleasure principle, it’s a movie that savages the myths of both. Within a country whose culture has recently deified greed and winning at any cost, it raises questions of morality, public and private, that much of that culture ignores or reduces to good guy-bad guy pablum. And within an industry that, as Steven Spielberg has admitted, short-changes the word in its obsession with the image, it brings back a literacy and high-style comic dialogue that now seems part of a vanishing art.

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“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” with real comic savagery and dramatic grace, simply rejects success as an end in itself, or revenge as a holy grail. And it takes a far gentler and more romantic gaze at the misdemeanors, perversities or foibles of sex.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, three theologians--one Lutheran, one Jewish, one a specialist in religious drama--wrestled with “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” And two of them--who may deserve a little comic needling themselves--determined that Allen’s world view here is bleak, hopeless or voguishly shallow: Counter to recent polls, cited by one of the trinity, that “consistently confirm that the great majority of Americans assume that God’s justice prevails . . . if not in time, then in eternity.” (Now, there’s a poll for you.)

Well and good. But “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is not the Woody Allen world view or the Woody Allen movie. Happily, it’s one of many. Some are optimistic, some are not. And, in the face of the seemingly universal wipeout of the virtuous in the film--the decent Jewish philosopher killing himself, the rabbi going blind, lovable Cliff going down in flames--the climax carries more hope and affirmation than we might expect. To be optimistic in the milieu of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” surrounded by loved ones and warm turkey, is one thing. To be optimistic while staring down a black chasm is quite another. It requires more courage, more faith and more of a sense of justice and truth than most American movies have bothered, recently, to show us.


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