Crimes and Misdemeanors

By Rita Kempley

October 13, 1989

Murder goes unpunished and true love unrewarded in Woody Allen's relentless "Crimes and Misdemeanors," a disparaging word or two on the sorry state of the world today. A relative of "Hannah And Her Sisters" in its duplex structure and of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" in its bitter theme, "Crimes" is two movies in one, a blend of Allen's satiric and pretentious dramatic styles. Herein he is disappointed in both Dostoevski and love.

The plot lines -- a herniated melodrama with Martin Landau and an amusing love couplet with Allen -- intersect in a tenuous kinship. There is also a cinematic glue -- old movie scenes that presage developments in "Crimes" -- that binds the monstrous sins of a crumbling community pillar with the follies of a fool in love. Landau plays eye doctor Judah Rosenthal, a weak man caught in an affair with the unstable Dolores (Anjelica Huston), who threatens to tell his wife (Claire Bloom) when he tries to dump her. A rabbi patient (Sam Waterston), slowly going blind, urges him to come clean; Judah's shifty brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) suggests hiring a hit man.

While Landau wrestles with his dilemma, Allen continues his search for fulfillment. But as the artist ages, it's no longer sex that obsesses him but romantic love. Mia Farrow costars as the stammering Halley Reed, a PBS producer who must choose between an intellectual soul mate, Cliff (Allen), and a shallow Hollywood mogul, Lester (Alan Alda).

Whiny, quirky and urbane, it's the easier half of the movie, more natural, directed without self-righteousness and strain. And as Cliff, Allen is the romantic misfit we like best, perplexed by women's propensity for going off with better-looking men with more money and more sense. Rejection lurks like a Lacoste alligator in every scene.

Cliff, who is directing a TV documentary on Lester, is bent on exposing him as a braying ass, even splicing footage of Francis the Talking Mule into the final product. Halley, an ambiguous love interest, comes to Lester's defense: "He's an American phenomenon," she says. "So is acid rain," counters Cliff, a neurotic, birdy shadow of the desperate Dolores of Story No. 1.

Dolores, meanwhile, has upped the stakes, threatening to expose Judah for juggling his own and his hospital's monies if he dares leave her. Already a cheat and an adulterer, Judah throws another log on the devil's campfire. Then, haunted by memories of Hebrew school, he sifts through long-held ethics to find the loopholes. His immediate friends and family cluster around Judah, unaware that he has betrayed them.

Cliff imagines he is betrayed by Halley. Lester gets the girl and traitors sleep tight while good men wrestle with their pillows or make smart movies. As "The Purple Rose Of Cairo" decried Hollywood's depiction of the Depression era, so "Crimes" debates the decline of the empire, questions the efficacy of all philosophies, from the Torah to Hollywood bromides.

"Crimes" feels like a tug of war between Landau's potent depiction of a blandly evil man, a man trusted with vision, and Allen's eternally comic hand-wringer. This way Allen has his own great clanking Russian tractor of a drama, and pleases his critics too, the ones who want "Annie Hall II." Actually, Cliff is Alvy Singer's first cousin, condemning Lester's high-blown non sequiturs, like "Comedy is tragedy plus time." Artistic nuspeak, the emperor's new paintbrush.

© Copyright The Washington Post Company