Crimes and Misdemeanors

By Chris Hicks

Late in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" Martin Landau says to Woody Allen, "If you want a happy ending, go see a Hollywood movie."

Woody Allen doesn't make Hollywood movies — and most of his movies don't have happy endings. But in Allen's world, that doesn't necessarily make for an unhappy ending.

Despite the joyous, hopeful, upbeat climax of "Hannah and Her Sisters," most of Allen's films over the past decade have ended with characters who are resolved to the consequences of their lives — they haven't necessarily gotten what they wanted, and if they have it may not have been the best thing for them.

Such is life, and such are Allen's movies.

"Crimes and Misdemeanors," Allen's latest film, which he wrote and directed, and in which he has a prominent starring role, fits into this motif, and though the picture rings clearly with Allen's style, in many ways it is a startling departure.

To put it in frivolous movie-critic terms, some might dub this "Fatal Attraction" meets "Annie Hall." And yet that doesn't come close to scratching the surface of what "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is all about.

Basically there are two parallel stories at work here with their own sets of ensemble characters and one (Sam Waterston as a rabbi) who crosses over into both. Then at the end of the film they all converge at a wedding where dangling storylines are resolved.

One story has Martin Landau in a magnificent, dignified, restrained portrait of a man about to break under stress; he is the fellow in the "Fatal Attraction" relationship. Actually, his mistress (Anjelica Huston), does not seem violent, but she's still lethal in Landau's eyes because she is hysterical and threatening and about to blow the whistle on their two-year tryst. Hell hath no fury . . . etc, and Landau can see his entire life crumbling as a result.

The other story has Allen as a documentary filmmaker with a conscience trying to make a film about an intellectual philosopher no one has ever heard of. When he gets an opportunity to do a film on his superficial, self-absorbed brother-in-law (Alan Alda), an enormously successful television producer, Allen at first balks. But then he decides to do it for the money, so he can fund his own movie.

During the process he meets a PBS producer (Mia Farrow) who is bright, intelligent and witty. Allen falls in love with her, but while she's divorced, he is stuck in a loveless marriage. Meanwhile, Alda begins to pursue Farrow, and Allen does everything he can think of to keep them apart.

Along the way there are several subplots, ranging from Allen's relationship with his sister's young daughter with whom he sees old movies at local matinees, to his sister's scary encounter with someone she meets through "the personals," to the rabbi's serious sight problems, to dozens of little slice-of-life moments that range from tabloid terror to serious philosophical discussions.

There are some great surprises here as Allen mixes up his characters with drama and humor, his own hilarious one-line zingers providing most of the comedy. In this context, however, even they have a bitter edge. (Even the film's most hilarious scene, as Allen shows his movie about Alda to Alda, ends with Allen getting fired.)

This is by far the most stark blending of humor and tragedy to come to the movies in some time — complete with murder, romance, suicide, pathos — and it's exhilarating. The stories are strong, the characters very realistic, the dialogue convincing and the performances superb — Landau is a standout, but Alda and Huston are also quite memorable.

Some may complain that the ending is morose or cynical, but I found it refreshing that each story followed its natural course and did not take the contrived, "Hollywood" approach. (With the possible exception of the rabbi's fate, though there is a point to it.)

My only carping would be that the film finishes with a preachy, obvious and unnecessary series of flashback clips.

But "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is still another great accomplishment for Allen, an artist whose films are vastly underappreciated by American moviegoers at large.

As a side note it should be mentioned that the PG-13 rating for "Crimes and Misdemeanors" seems rather harsh for a movie that depicts most of its crimes off-camera and has only a few profanities and a couple of vulgar jokes. (Compare this with "Worth Winning," another PG-13-rated movie, and you'll see what I mean.)

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