Picks and Pans Review: Crimes and Misdemeanors

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Martin Landau, Woody Allen

If someone were alternately tickling you and conking you on the head with a mallet, you would (1) laugh in spite of yourself, (2) ponder the nature of a universe where this can happen and (3) wish you could look inside the head of the guy doing the tickling and conking. That, more or less, is what it is like to see this remarkable film—remarkably funny, remarkably provocative and remarkably grim.

Allen, who wrote and directed, appears to be seeking a compromise between his earlier comedies and the humorless dramas of his more recent career. It's as if he wants to have his pie and throw it in our faces, too. The resultant film is fascinating, if schizophrenic. Half of it is the story of a ruthless murder; half is the familiar story of Allen the frustrated lover, though the implacable bitterness of this movie's attitude toward romance is still startling.

Landau plays a renowned ophthalmologist and philanthropist. He is married to Claire Bloom and has an apparently flourishing family life but has secretly been having an affair with an unstable flight attendant, Anjelica Huston. Jerry Orbach is Landau's brother, a career criminal.

Allen plays a sour documentary filmmaker sexlessly married to Joanna (Hannah and Her Sisters) Gleason. "The last time I was inside a woman," Allen says, "I was in the Statue of Liberty."

Alan Alda, in a potent, black magic performance that makes an oily guy seem charming in spite of himself, is Allen's brother-in-law, an operator who is super-successful at both producing shlock TV shows and seducing women. He is fond of spouting such wisdom as "comedy is tragedy plus time." (Allen makes fun of this notion but subscribes to it; this film, for instance, includes a joke based on Hitler's birthday.) Sam Waterson is Alda's brother, a rabbi. Mia Farrow, beautifully embodying sweet vulnerability and ruthless ambition, portrays a public-TV producer whom Alda and Allen are avidly courting.

While there is clearly a lot going on, Allen keeps the plots distinct until the two sets of characters wind up together in the final scenes. The ending, however, is tough to assimilate—movie audiences aren't used to having to constantly readjust their focus from humor to horrible violence to religion to sex to the raging frailties of the human ego. Allen hurts the concentration required for that assimilation by letting his murderer agonize un-convincingly over predictable guilt feelings. Then, too, the voice-over on Allen's closing shot, extolling work and family, sounds false after all the bleak wit and gloom (which includes having the only character with a bright outlook go blind).

If the movie ultimately extols shmoozing through the apocalypse, it does so with rare style and intelligence. Allen has never seemed to confidently trust his audience to see the intellect and philosophical insight behind, say, Love and Death. And like Allen's dramas, Crimes and Misdemeanors pleads for us to scratch around with him through the universe, looking for the hidden meaning of life. Unlike those dramas, though, it displays perspective, with humor serving as a built-in self-importance alarm. Just when things are bottoming out, someone says to Allen that "show business is a dog-eat-dog world." No, he replies: "It's worse. It's a dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-calls world." (PG-13)

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