A Serious Mensch
I just figured out what I want for my birthday. It's a big request, but I've been pretty good this year, so maybe the universe or God or Hollywood can make it happen--just this once: My dream is to have Woody Allen consult on every major motion picture from now until the end of time. I'm not asking that he star--or even direct--but he should at least run the script meetings, with full authority to shame any hack writers into quitting on the spot.
Case in point: 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, another film that I'd somehow managed to avoid but which set off fireworks in my brain from the opening scene to the last. Allen's tenuously connected stories about wealthy ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) and struggling documentary filmmaker Cliff Stern (Allen)--both of whom have unique approaches to dealing with failing marriages--examines guilt and responsibility in ways I only thought were masterfully addressed in the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.
I love that film, and think it still holds up, but Crimes and Misdemeanors adds a layer of intrigue to its existential and romantic complications. Judah has come to what he thinks is the end of a two-year affair with his stewardess mistress, Dolores (Angelica Houston); she has other ideas, and sends letters and makes phone calls to his house in the hopes that she can confront Judah's oblivious wife, Miriam (Claire Bloom). Dolores doesn't go full-Fatal-Attraction, but she makes the fatal mistake of telling Judah that she knows about some unethical practices he was engaged in while building a new opthalmology institute--a declaration that prompts him to ask his black-sheep brother, Jack (Jerry Orbach) to have her disposed of.
On the lighter side, Cliff is stuck in a loveless marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason) who wishes he would aspire to be more like her brother, Lester (Alan Alda), a successful television producer with a stack of Emmys and a wandering eye. Lester offers Cliff the chance to direct a documentary about him for public television; Cliff reluctantly accepts, figuring the money will help him complete his passion project--a profile on a Holocaust survivor who preaches about love. While filming Lester, Cliff falls for a recently divorced producer named Halley (Mia Farrow), and they begin an awkward, practically one-sided courtship.
The common thread here is Ben (Sam Waterston), Wendy and Lester's brother and a long-time patient of Judah's. Over the course of the movie, Ben loses his sight, but uses his rabbinical wisdom and optimism to try and keep his siblings' lives together and save Judah's marriage. Though he is a stand-in for God--even manifesting as an advice-giving mirage in Judah's living room--no one heeds his advice. This is very important, as Allen takes great pains to lay out what he sees as the rules of the universe: God is always watching; He rewards the just and punishes the wicked.
In a typical movie, justice would be meted out as follows: Judah's guilt would either trip him up and cause him to get caught, or drive him to suicide. Cliff would break from the bonds of his spiteful wife and her vain, idiot brother and run away with the warm and intelligent Wendy. But by the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, both men are utterly defeated, devoured by vanity and a false sense of superiority. Landau delivers his closing monologue with a wild, thousand-yard-stare, causing us to question whether or not Judah buys the bullshit he's slinging. Cliff's fate, in a way, is worse.
Allen's screenplay is like an exercise in which he tries to tackle the subjects of paranoia, guilt and faith from two wholly different sensibilities--dramatic and comedic. I can't recall a film that's attempted this, and it's hard to imagine one doing it better. On their own, Cliff and Judah's stories would have been interesting, but by fusing them Allen gives new context to both: as the murder plot gets deeper and weirder, we break to check in on Cliff's lovesick, crumbling life for comic relief; when that becomes that becomes too uncomfortable, we check back in with Judah, whose conscience drives him to actions both tragic and comic.
Through it all, Allen reminds us that these are essentially decent men who committed the cosmic sin of aspiring to become something they're not: Judah is supposed to be the good brother, remaining aloof in his perfect marriage and world of privilege (indeed, his only troubles with Miriam seem to come from complacency). When he steps outside that box, the universe (Jack and Ben) warns him and gives him ample opportunity to confess his sins and follow a hard but redemptive path.
Cliff suffers from the sense of entitlement that comes from being an artist surrounded by people who aren't creatively inclined. He has the restlessness of a twenty-something but is trapped in a world of settlement and expectations. Instead of doing the noble thing after falling for Halley, he tries to kick-start an affair, which starts him on down a path of ignobility; his behavior becomes more bold and erratic (his cut of Lester's documentary is mean and hilarious), and he forgets that the reason he's never made anything of himself is because he has neither the spine nor the tools--unlike the people he looks down on.
Crimes and Misdemeanors shows us how inherently interesting people can be. Allen gets great mileage out of letting terrific actors (Alan Alda as a scumbag, who knew?) play real characters, without too many off-putting flourishes--though towards the end, Cliff's Allen-esque one-liners and asides got to be a bit much. If his characters can be this compelling just going to work and lying their way through cocktail parties, imagine what they could do dodging giant robots or conquering deep space!
I know, it's silly to suggest that Woody Allen do punch-up on Transformers 3, but everyone's biggest complaint about dumb, summer blockbusters is that they're, well, dumb. Wouldn't it be nice to see characters you actually give a shit about, who act like people you know, having to face not just existential crises but giant, metal ones? I, for one, think it would be great to see a well-respected actor pop up in a franchise picture and think, "Wow, Frances McDormand really brought something to this role", instead of, "I didn't realize there was an expiration date on Fargo residuals".
I know, it's a lot to ask. Besides, box office figures suggest that the average moviegoer prefers to have nothing to do with reality while being entertained. I don't know when that happened, but it seems like someone, somewhere, got away with something big.