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COMMENTARY : Woody Allen Keeps the Faith : 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' tears down the wall between his serious and comic sides

October 22, 1989|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Lester is a sly mixture of three Lears--the TV pedigree of Norman, the deadpan absurdity of Edward and the prideful fury of the King. This may have been a part Alan Alda was born to play; he and Allen nail this smarmy, self-justifying hustler to the wall. As Lester stoops over in a condescending slump that suggests his spine is on a hinge, nimbly juggling flattery, spitting inane memoranda for TV show plots into a mini-recorder, he obviously sees himself as the tycoon with taste, the sellout with soul. Even his constantly repeated comic credo is absurd: "If it bends, it's funny; if it breaks, it's not." (Translation: Comedy should never draw blood.) He's the final expression of Allen's career-long contempt for "Going Hollywood," the hyperbolic anti-L.A. cracks that often amuse or delight his many West Coast admirers.

But in "Crimes," Allen goes for bigger game than Lester--or Los Angeles. Judah and Lester are winners, Cliff a loser. By schematizing their stories like this, Allen delivers a crushing blow to a cherished cultural myth of the '80s: that success is its own justification, that gilded ends justify sordid means. And setting this moral struggle in a world predominantly Jewish, abandoning the WASPy prototypes of his earlier dramas, gives the story a new moral charge. (If there is no eye of God in the world of "Crimes," there's still the eye of Sven Nykvist's camera, with its chilly light bathing Allen's intricately choreographed long takes. And that eye, fiercely and lovingly, sees all.)

Throughout his career, Allen has been, like his own creation Leonard Zelig, a chameleon. Many of his movies suggest other movies or literary works: "Take the Money and Run" is born out of Warner Bros. gangster classics; "Sleeper" out of "2001" and "Clockwork Orange"; "Love and Death" out of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lean and Bergman; "Stardust Memories" out of "8 1/2"; "Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" out of Shakespeare and "Smiles of a Summer Night"; "Hannah and Her Sisters" out of "Fanny and Alexander," "Anna Karenina" and "Strange Interlude"; "Radio Days" out of "Amarcord," and "Another Woman" out of "Wild Strawberries."

But "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is peculiarly his own. We can sense echoes of Strindberg, O'Neill, the Bergman of "Winter Light" and "Shame." But the resolution and form are uniquely Woody Allen's.

It's not a perfect film. It has too obvious symbolism, thin writing for Sam Waterston's rabbi, and overly stiff staging in the first Judah-Jack conspiracy scene. You also might wonder why Lester, after firing Cliff, is so mystified that he dislikes him.

But it's still a film that stands apart. Within an American cinema that, for a decade, has seemed preoccupied with false heroics and the pleasure principle, it's a movie that savages the myths of both. Within a country whose culture has recently deified greed and winning at any cost, it raises questions of morality, public and private, that much of that culture ignores or reduces to good guy-bad guy pablum. And within an industry that, as Steven Spielberg has admitted, short-changes the word in its obsession with the image, it brings back a literacy and high-style comic dialogue that now seems part of a vanishing art.

"Crimes and Misdemeanors," with real comic savagery and dramatic grace, simply rejects success as an end in itself, or revenge as a holy grail. And it takes a far gentler and more romantic gaze at the misdemeanors, perversities or foibles of sex.

In last Sunday's New York Times, three theologians--one Lutheran, one Jewish, one a specialist in religious drama--wrestled with "Crimes and Misdemeanors." And two of them--who may deserve a little comic needling themselves--determined that Allen's world view here is bleak, hopeless or voguishly shallow: Counter to recent polls, cited by one of the trinity, that "consistently confirm that the great majority of Americans assume that God's justice prevails . . . if not in time, then in eternity." (Now, there's a poll for you.)

Well and good. But "Crimes and Misdemeanors" is not the Woody Allen world view or the Woody Allen movie. Happily, it's one of many. Some are optimistic, some are not. And, in the face of the seemingly universal wipeout of the virtuous in the film--the decent Jewish philosopher killing himself, the rabbi going blind, lovable Cliff going down in flames--the climax carries more hope and affirmation than we might expect. To be optimistic in the milieu of "Hannah and Her Sisters," surrounded by loved ones and warm turkey, is one thing. To be optimistic while staring down a black chasm is quite another. It requires more courage, more faith and more of a sense of justice and truth than most American movies have bothered, recently, to show us.

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