Crimes and Misdemeanors
There are few filmmakers that can create a movie that is both a shameful mess and a shameless triumph at the same time, sometimes in the same scene. Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers, but he’s not one that makes it look effortless. You always get the feeling it’s just by the skin of his teeth, that he’s one misstep away from the whole house of cards tumbling down. I’ve come to realize that that’s one of the reasons I enjoy his work so much: the anticipation. With any of his movies, it’s like you’re watching a fat man in a figure skating competition. Win or lose, you’re probably going to see something spectacular.
Crimes and Misdemeanors is the Allen equivalent of a Chris Farley/Brian Boitano love child. It takes the form of two separate movies: one, a very serious Fatal Attraction suspense movie. The other, an Annie Hall–style romantic comedy, in that it has no real romance and the comedy only comes from the tragedy of the characters.
The suspense has Martin Landau as the wayward husband, a well-respected eye doctor and philanthropist who, after years of being faithful to his wife, has a two-year fling with a headcase flight attendant (Anjelica Huston). She threatens repeatedly to confront his wife, to reveal financial improprieties from his philanthropy, and to basically ruin his life. Landau turns to his shifty brother (Jerry Orbach), who has mob ties and can “make the problem go away.” I’m not giving anything away to say that the problem is taken care of, and the rest of that section of the movie is Landau dealing with the repercussions.
The comedy features Allen playing Allen, in the most Allen role I’ve yet seen. I can’t tell if he’s knowingly playing a caricature of his usual screen persona, or if he’s gotten so close to the source material that he can’t see the forest for the trees. He plays a documentary filmmaker who is trapped in a loveless marriage (“the last time I was inside a woman I was visiting the Statue of Liberty”), is trying to get financing for his magnum opus (a monotonous, dull treatise of some kind), and spends most of his afternoons going to the movies with his niece (a 14-year-old Diane-Keaton-as-Annie-Hall doppelganger, down to the weird hats and neckties). Desperate for cash, he winds up taking a job shooting a documentary for his brother in law (Alan Alda), whom he loathes, and in the process meets a production assistant (Mia Farrow), whom he doesn’t.
Allen plays the two plots off one another as counterpoints. Landau is a serious man, Allen is a joke. Landau is a magnificent success, Allen a dismal failure. Landau is an adulterer, Allen would like to be, but doesn’t even get that right. When Landau is at his lowest low, Allen is at his highest high, and, in the end, vice versa. For every serious moment in Landau’s drama, there are an equal number of ridiculous ones in the Allen comedy.
Allen is not usually a flashy director. His scenes are static, his camera rarely moves, and framing is usually accomplished by shooting through a window or a door, and having the actors move within the static frame. Here, he shows that he can do flash as well as anyone. The scenes of Landau reminiscing are incredible, as Allen cuts to flashbacks while the audio track overlaps the imagery; it makes you wonder if Stephen Soderbergh was thinking of this when he shot The Limey. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie without the iconic shots of New York; particularly beautiful is the scene as the hitman gets out of his car, and the camera pulls back to a grandiose shot of the George Washington Bridge.
The writing is classic Allen. The main characters are all unlikable, irredeemable, vapid or cruel. The only good and decent man in the movie is punished, as all the bacchanalian host of sinners literally dance around him in the end. You feel tainted and dirty for having spent time with them, and yet are drawn to their wicked and weaseling ways. It really is a minor masterpiece of scripting.
Because just as you think that it will crash down, that it will be a tragicomic and ridiculous failure, suddenly the fat man is gliding, and landing the triple axel, and dying as a swan at center ice. And you’ve seen something both unsettling and spectacular, that you’re glad you’ve seen, and that you hope to never see again.
Tags: 5-star, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Annie Hall, Brian Boitano, Chris Farley, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Diane Keaton, Fatal Attraction, George Washington Bridge, Jerry Orbach, Martin Landau, New York, Statue of Liberty, Steven Soderbergh, The Limey, Woody Allen