THE MAJOR CRIME is murder; the major misdemeanor is envy. But that's only the surface reading. And these days, Woody Allen is far too ambitious a filmmaker to let anyone get away with that.
The central criminal in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a respected lion of the community -- a man renowned among his professional peers as "husband, father, golf companion." Judah is a self-described skeptic and man of science. His religious father taught him, as a boy, that "the eyes of God are on us always."
"I wonder if it's just a coincidence," says Judah, "that I made my specialty ophthalmology."
It was Judah who got his hospital's new ophthalmology wing built. It is also Judah who has been embezzling and keeping a mistress named Dolores on the side. Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is a vindictive hysteric who threatens to blow his cover.
She is irrational and demanding, a woman who wants the world of lapsed feelings to be either hell or purgatory. She's a fatal attraction who has begun to repel -- an urban barnacle of the sort who, in the '80s, has come to be perceived as a horror (a harrowing commentary on the psyche of the waning decade).
Judah's mobster brother (Jerry Orbach) suggests that the way to take care of Dolores is to take care of Dolores, if you know what I mean. Judah assents. Dolores is taken care of.
On the other side of the moral fence, there is Cliff (Allen himself) a solemn documentary filmmaker who is crippled with envy for his wildly successful TV-producer brother-in-law (Alan Alda). To make matters worse, his pompous brother-in-law has thrown him a bone -- a documentary about the Alda's character for a PBS "Creative Minds" series.
Both Cliff and the great man have fallen in love with the producer of the PBS series (Mia Farrow). Cliff offers her champagne and oat bran mixed with the indigestible bile of his envy. The Great Man offers her pomp, circumstance and something resembling genuine warmth.
"Crimes and Misdemeanors" easily qualifies as the lightest and most watchable of Woody Allen's "serious" movies ("Interiors," "Another Woman," etc). It's a far more substantial movie than "Hannah and Her Sisters," if not quite as reassuringly sanguine.
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'Crimes': Character always paradoxical
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Actors now line up around Manhattan to appear in Woody Allen films. So a typically superlative cast (Sam Waterston and Claire Bloom, for instance, in addition to everyone else) goes through a complex but graceful plot that meditates on God and evil and the moral shoddiness of the '80s. The actors do remarkable work for him.
In this world, human character is always paradoxical and human destiny is painfully inscrutable. The tradition here isn't merely literary, it's Eastern European. In the world of wit and gnomic utterance, the distance between aphorisms and gags is minute. Take a European writer -- Elias Canetti will do. You can take some extraordinary aphorisms from Canetti's recently published "The Heart of the Clock" and give them to Allen's characters as mottos:
Cliff ("In order to become more proud, he let himself be insulted again and again"); Judah ("Mental hypocrisy: whenever a truth threatens, he hides behind a thought").
And the whole drama is about God and his sight. What Woody Allen wants to know is -- Does God really see? Does he pay any attention to what goes on here? And if he does, how could the '80s have happened? (Canetti again: "It could be that God is not sleeping but hiding from us out of fear.")
At the end, the film's rabbi -- God's representative on earth -- has gone blind.
Nora Ephron does a literal walk-on. The suicide of revered writer Primo Levi does a metaphorical walk-on (through the story of one of the characters).
There are missed opportunities here. Real daring would have been to make Cliff the criminal -- for refusing to understand life's momentous stakes -- and Judah God's venial sinner (he knows the enormity of the moral margins). Real daring, though, is not in Allen's bag of tricks.
Lest this sound as if it isn't funny -- it is, it is. As always, all of the plot that deals with Cliff (Allen) and his raging envies is hilarious. Cliff's wife, for instance, hasn't slept with him since April 20 -- Hitler's birthday. Among other comedians and gag writers, Woody Allen is known as the master craftsman -- the Albrecht Durer of neurotic urban jokes.
After a while, though, you begin to realize that Allen's incessant philosophical skepticism is a form of jingoism. He asks momentous questions the way TV commercials make momentous claims -- as an empty reflex signifying absolutely nothing.
At bottom, Allen's philosophical anguish is only a movie after all.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Murder, envy and wisecracks in a circle of well-to-do Manhattanites.
Starring Woody Allen, Martin Landau, Mia Farrow and Anjelica Huston. Written and directed by Woody Allen.
Rated R and opening Friday in the Market Arcade, Maple Ridge and Hoyts Walden Galleria theaters.