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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Stranger’: Griffith in the Hasidim

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Emily Eden, the NYPD detective in “A Stranger Among Us” (citywide) who goes undercover in New York’s Hasidic community to trap a murderer, Melanie Griffith has a hardened look that’s ripe for softening. She’s playing a tough, cynical, single careerwoman, the daughter of a cop. The movie is about her emotional unfolding when she enters the clannish, mysterious world of the Hasidim; she warms to their deep-rooted sense of family, though she chafes at their religious strictures, and falls in love with Ariel (Eric Thal), the adopted son of the community’s Rebbe (Lee Richardson).

It would be easy, and not unfair, to dub “A Stranger Among Us” a Hasidic variant on “Witness.” It draws on the same doomed would-be-lovers scenario, the same (unconvincing) undercover cop melodramatics. The world of the Hasidim in New York isn’t totally new terrain: “The Chosen” already plowed some of it. But our fascination with this community is what draws us into “A Stranger Among Us.” It’s so unusual for such frankly religious material to make its way into a mainstream movie that we want to experience more; we want to look beyond the “exotic.”

But director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Robert J. Avrech diminish their story by smoothing out the exoticism and turning the movie into a brotherhood-of-man confab. Emily is transformed by her contact with the Hasidim; she realizes that beneath their fierce proprieties they share many of the same passions and miseries that she does. It’s a somewhat patronizing view, even though the Hasidim, even in their weaknesses, never come across as anything less than saintly. In their scenes together, Emily is the one who garners all the valuable life lessons. Ariel wrestles with his feelings for her, but it’s part of the film’s moist fatalism that he’s never in any danger of succumbing. As the heir to the Rebbe, Ariel shoulders an impressive load of learning and fortitude.

By setting up the Hasidim as exotic exemplars, the film misses out on the community’s sheer exuberance--their almost ecstatic joy in communality. Lumet slows down his usual hot-footed technique in the scenes with the Hasidim; we might be peering into a distant past. Yet as posed and hokey as much of this material is, it still has a deep-toned gravity that makes the urban cop scenes seem flimsy. This flimsiness is probably intentional; it’s the filmmakers’ way of scoring against modern immorality. What “A Stranger Among Us” (rated PG-13) is really saying is that the “old ways” are best.

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Despite its jagged urban edge, Lumet and Avrech are thumping for the old-fashioned values that presumably Emily has lost. There’s the suggestion that, while she’s a first-rate cop, she’s not really suited for the job; it’s dampened her womanliness. (Perhaps she became a cop because she wanted to please her uncommunicative, alcoholic father--i.e., she was looking for love.) Her wayward, unsatisfying love life is also a signpost. It says she needs to settle down and find a soulmate, a family. The Rebbe, with his full white beard and kindly, all-knowing eyes, provides her with patriarchal ballast.

There’s a sequence where Ariel’s sister Leah (Mia Sara) tells Emily that her goal in life is to be a wife and mother, and when Emily seems dumbfounded, Leah responds, “What could be more important?” The way the scene is played, this pronouncement registers as official Food for Thought. Throughout the film, Leah has such maidenly radiance that her devotional duties are made to seem beatific. The film sentimentalizes the traditional woman’s role at the expense of the modern woman, and then tries to justify the sentiment by quoting from the cabala--the Jewish book of mysticism: “Women are on a higher spiritual plane than men.”

“A Stranger Among Us” isn’t emotionally on a much higher level than a Harlequin romance, but Lumet keeps the actors in front of us, and we enjoy watching them. Richardson is blessedly restrained, and Thal, in his first movie, has a tentativeness that is very becoming in the role. Griffith doesn’t send out too many sparks, though; her way of acting “hardened” is to be kind of blotto, and she doesn’t have the expressive range that might make her final, distraught scenes work. Or maybe she’s just too honest an actress to play out the script’s overwrought romanticism. Her calmness has a way of shading into dullness, and “A Stranger Among Us” needs all the avidity it can get.

‘A Stranger Among Us’

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Melanie Griffith: Emily Eden

Eric Thal: Ariel

Lee Richardson: Rebbe

Mia Sara: Leah

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David Rosenbaum: Mr. Klausman

A Hollywood Pictures presentation of a Propaganda Films production. Director Sidney Lumet. Producer Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson. Executive producers Sandy Gallin & Carol Baum. Screenplay Robert J. Avrech. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak. Editor Andrew Mondshein. Costumes Gary Jones & Ann Roth. Music Jerry Bock. Production design Philip Rosenberg. Art director Steve Graham. Set decorator Gary Brink. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13.


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