In the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel that is the basis of this film, a Jewish refugee in postwar New York City tries to forget his wartime experiences by immersing himself in love affairs. His life is merely raised to a new level of circumstantial complication when his wife, whom he thought had been killed in the war, suddenly shows up.
That striking premise is fulfilled when Singer's resigned wit shows through. (When the old wife, Huston, reappears, she finds her husband has a new wife—their former maid. Huston says, "Well, at least you two have one thing in common: You both knew me when I was alive.")
Director Paul (Down and Out in Beverly Hills) Mazursky miscast badly, however, in choosing Silver to play the lead role. A distinguished Broadway actor and effective character player in such films as Best Friends and Silkwood, Silver seems strikingly insubstantial in a role that a Hoffman or a De Niro or a Kline could have turned into award fodder. Silver seems nothing like the sexual magnet the character is supposed to be, has difficulty pulling off the vulnerable scenes where he has nightmares about his wartime experiences and—especially when Huston is onscreen with him—has a hard time competing with his female co-stars.
Mazursky allows Alan King, as a fast-lane rabbi, to overact wildly. Mazursky also plays a small role and gives himself this line as he warns Silver about the predatory nature of women: "If you don't run away, they'll suck the last drop of life out of you." And there are so many references to Jewish religious ceremonies and so much Yiddish, it's often hard even to tell what's going on.
While there are plenty of differences between this film and Sophie's Choice, there are too many similarities. And—strong as they are—Huston, Lena (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) Olin and Polish actress Margaret Sophie Stein, as Silver's romantic interests, lose for winning. The better they are, the more they overshadow Silver and throw the film out of balance. (R)