Sunday, 23 May 2010

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Is this film really 21 years old? I still rate this as the best Woody Allen film I've seen - which isn't many as I'm not really a fan. But that aside - this is good. The film was nominated for three Oscars. I saw this again on Friday evening with a group of curates as part of a training weekend exploring the question 'what is the worth of a human'. It proved to be a good choice which set up the weekend well and provide rich material for reflection around our theme.

Set in New York the film is, as all Allen's films usually are, auto-biographical. Allen stars as Cliff, a small-time movie maker who's short on work and high on ideals. He has been shooting a documentary about the views of a Jewish Philosophy Professor, Dr Levy. Levy's outlook on life seems to be a blend of common-sense pragmatism with an acknowledgement that humanity needs a moral code and something in which to believe. Essentially he preaches a secular message of hope. Cliff is locked into a life-less marriage and his self-absorption is clearfly driving a wedge between him and his wife.

Judah is the other central character. A successful ophthalmologist who is a respected pillar of New York's Jewish elite and a generous benefactor to a range of projects. He lives with Miriam, his wife of 25 years, who enjoys the trappings of comfort and success and their luxury home well outside the city.

Cliff's brother-in-law is Lester who is a highly successful and critically acclaimed producer who is full of himself and repeatedly dictates reminders about possible projects into a pocket dictaphone - much to everyone's, and especially Cliff's, annoyance. Cliff hates Lester's success and so hates Lester and a series of penetrating one-liners are thrown his way such as "Lester - he's an American phenomenon" to which Cliff responds "so is acid rain!". Ouch.

Ben is a Rabbi who is losing his sight and a patient of Judah. The loss of Ben's physical sight and the clarity of his spiritual and moral sight provide a powerful metaphor that underpins the story. So much of the plot is about what might be seen, what has been seem and what is plain to see.

Judah has been having an affair with Dolores, an airline attendant after a chance encounter on a flight to Boston. For two years he has been living a double life spending weekends away with Dolores when ostensibly he was attending a conference. Dolores has become neurotic and her need-to-be-needed has taken control. She threatens to tell Miriam of the affair unless Judah leaves Miriam to be with her. Judah cannot allow his world to be torn down by Dolores who refuses to listen to reason and becomes increasingly unstable and erratic. Dolores also threatens to blow the whistle on Judah's financial impropriety which would further ruin his standing in society. In desperation Judah turns to his brother Jack who is clearly a man with under-world connections. Jack's advice is that Miriam is taken out - he sees no other solution that would satisfy Judah's demands.

Meanwhile. Judah confides in Ben during a consultation and Ben suggests a range of things that spring from his hopeful optimistic view of life. Ben says "sometimes when there is true love, there can be forgiveness" and "Give the people you've hurt the chance to forgive you." After the encounter Judah is thrown into deep moral dilemma and remarks that "God is a luxury I can't afford" and "I will not be destroyed by this neurotic woman!".

Meanwhile, out of pity for cliff and as a favour to his sister, Lester invites Cliff to make a documentary about him and his take on comedy. Cliff reluctantly accepts and says he will use the money to complete the documentary he is making on Dr Levy. One of Lester's entourage is a producer Halley who Cliff immediately falls for. He takes her to the cinema and also shows her some of the Dr Levy footage which she says would make a great episode in the show she is producing. The relationship grows - but unfortunately for the hapless Cliff, not romantically.

Desperate, Judah calls Jack and tells him to go ahead. Later that evening when Jack calls to report that the deed has been done and it will look like a simple burglary, Judah's moral compass begins rotating and spinning wildly. He experiences flash backs to his childhood where the family sitting around the table sharing a seder meal. Judah's father, a man of deep faith and regular synagogue worshipper, says that he will always choose God over truth and that God's eyes see everything. He tells jack 'may God have mercy on us" and reiterates that the eyes of God see everything.

Judah then visits the scene of the crime to remove incriminating articles. Seeing Dolores dead, her big dark eyes now life-less and empty plunges him into inner turmoil and waves of guilt relentlessly sweep over him. The next day he turns up at the childhood home and the owner invites him inside. In his mind he is taken back to the Seder in which he is present as both his present and his younger self. This encounter only adds to his guilt. he takes to the bottle and becomes withdrawn and depressed.

Lots of other things are ongoing within the web of relationships that the film weaves. Cliff enjoys a very close and familiar relationship with his niece Jenny. Given the timing of the film, it is worth asking the question if tyhis portrayal is a mirror of what was going on with his real-life adopted daughter  Soon-Yi Previn whom he later married!

The outcomes leave Cliff living a downward spiral of self-fulfilling doom and gloom whilst Lester's stock continues to rise. In the end he captures Halley just to drive home Cliff's feelings of inadequacy. Ben loses his sight but appears to be reconciled to it and there is a lovely intimate dance with his daughter on her wedding day. Judah decides he can live with the knowledge of the murder he commissioned safe in knowing that his reputation and marriage are once again safe.

The film has so much in it about the worth of a human. Go watch and see what you see in it.

I'll give it 7.5/10.

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