Sep. 7, 2008
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Grade: 54/100

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Alan Alda

What it's about. Set in New York City, as usual. There are two nearly separate storylines. Martin Landau is a wealthy and respected ophthalmologist, married to adoring Claire Bloom. His grown daughter is Stephanie Roth Haberle. Landau's ideal life is endangered, however. He is trying to end an affair with Anjelica Huston, the Fatal Attraction type who is threatening to ruin his life if he doesn't leave Bloom for her.

Landau needs confidential advice. He first turns to his rabbi brother, Sam Waterson, who advises fessing up to Bloom. But Landau is too cowardly for that. He then turns to his 'black sheep' brother, Jerry Orbach, who suggests a much darker resolution. This leaves Landau wracked with guilt, which he eventually overcomes.

The other storyline involves Woody Allen, who is in a loveless marriage with Joanna Gleason. Allen has the hots for Mia Farrow, a documentary producer also pursued by wealthy (but obnoxious) Alan Alda. Naturally, Allen despises Alda, jealous of his success and outraged at his ego.

How others will see it. Crimes and Misdemeanors was nominated for three major Oscars, and was widely praised by critics. Like other post-Manhattan Allen films, it was not a significant commercial success, but that was never its intention. Most educated viewers will find the movie interesting but not particularly compelling. Women more accustomed to watching blockbusters may turn their heads when homely Allen makes the inevitable pass on Mia Farrow.

How I felt about it. Nothing much comes from Allen's half of the story. The ending is credible in that Farrow breaks off with Allen in favor of Alda, who has the resources and connections to promote her career. Farrow knows that Alda is conceited and will cheat on her, but she doesn't care. It's still a step up from a life of poverty and limited opportunity with obsessive talker Woody Allen.

The other plot is of greater interest. Landau is at a crossroads. Should he do the right thing or the wrong thing? Waterson is the angel who counsels honesty and atonement. Orbach is the devil who advocates hiring a hit man, which has the advantage of requiring no lifestyle changes. Guess which advice Landau takes. This leads to further questions. If Landau escapes punishment, and is in fact rewarded for his great sin, what does this tell us about morality, God, and the law? The answer makes common sense. Morality is self-serving, God is indifferent, and the law favors the wealthy. Life may not be what we want it to be. It is what it is.

Landau is cagey enough to get out of trouble. But he's virtually overcome by guilt, since his sense of right and wrong condemns his selfish and reprehensible actions. Time heals all wounds, and also dulls the impact of the consequences. Once he knows he has gotten away with it, he begins to feel like his old self again. Acting in your own self interest usually pays off, and it is only a moral barricade that distinguishes us from gangsters.

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