Sunday, February 20, 2011

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

I'm glad Woody Allen is still making movies, but I join those who hold a special fondness for his work in the 1980s, which seemed to come from a much older director, someone looking back at a long life. There is a gentle sense of loss, even a nostalgia, in many of them. From Stardust Memories (1980) and Zelig (1983) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) (my favorite Woody Allen picture, if I were forced to commit), to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Radio Days (1987), Allen mourned with quiet affection lost eras, folly without consequence, the desire to reinvent ourselves. He was kinder than the hard times the movies were made in--and maybe that was the point: After two terms of Reagan, in which anything failed to trickle down, at least we could still go to the movies.

But at the end of the decade he picks up some dirt and spits in his hand and rubs the paste in our eyes to make us see. Crimes and Misdemeanors examines the loss of not only guilt but also meaning, and shrugs at our efforts even to document the collapse. Following various characters' trajectories, Allen gives himself something close to the Russian novels that seem to run beneath the surface of his less-comic movies, at once expansive and claustrophobic, as more and more lives slip into the same small cellar to confront each other in the dark.

His documentarian, Cliff Stern (a name that puts me in mind of Sisyphus), tries to preserve a beloved philosopher's work--while enduring a better-paying gig: profiling Lester, played with such self-satisfied smugness by Alan Alda that everything smug and self-satisfied the actor had ever done is finally both exposed and forgiven. Allen gives Stern a suitably jaundiced eye for the kind of amused disgust he can write so well--but the jokes are on him, bitterly: His documentary subject, Prof. Louis Levy, his only ray of hope, commits suicide--while Sam Waterston's gentle Ben goes blind. And then the final blow: Martin Landau's beloved ophthalmologist, Judah, has his mistress (Angelica Huston frazzled and doomed) killed by the inimitable Jerry Orbach, his bad suits matched only by his hooded vulture eyes.

The worst slip away unnoticed, the good are discarded, the indifferent let alone. Allen leaves the '80s without a shred of dignity, almost bored with itself and way beyond good and evil. It's interesting to note that his follow-up picture is Alice, a sweet assertion starring Mia Farrow--the two of them soon to sink into the hole themselves.

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