The 1989 movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is surely Woody Allen’s most moral film. It asks questions the Jewish theologians, and all thinking people, often ask when confronted by the moral dilemmas of the world. Is there a God? Is this a moral and just world? Are the good rewarded and the wicked punished? Or is there no meaning, save what an individual chooses, or not chooses, to create for themselves?
The plot of the film revolves around the successful Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) whose infidelity has mushroomed into an uncontrollable affair which now threatens not only his marriage, but also his entire world. When his mistress (Anjelica Huston) refuses to accept anything other than the impossible from Judah (i.e. that he leave his wife), Judah seeks help from his worldly brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) who has shady connections and suggests that the woman “can be gotten rid of.”
Thus begins Judah’s moral crisis which takes him down a long, dark inner path where his previously-rejected, strict Jewish upbringing returns to haunt him. This is seen most dramatically in a scene where he returns to his boyhood home and witnesses a Passover Seder from his past where his relatives, many long dead, debate whether there is a God who punishes the wicked.
The subplot of the film is much lighter and the funniest lines come from Allen who plays Cliff, a serious documentary maker who is asked to profile a vain, egotistical, sit-com director played with relish by Alan Alda. Cliff would much rather profile a deep, intellectual philosophy professor (Martin Bergmann) whose profound thoughts help provide a moral tone for the movie. However, his final action just shocks Cliff and makes him question his world view, as well as the final action of the woman he loves (Mia Farrow).
Landau’s performance as a morally tortured man is wonderful, and Alda’s flamboyance is a lot of fun. Allen, of course, is his usual comic self. But Sam Waterston, who plays a rabbi representing the popular Jewish morality, is surprisingly weak, considering his powerful performances in so many other films and TV shows.
While this film has much to say, I do not recommend it for children. At one point, there is a reference to an act so gross it could be greatly disturbing to kids. And perhaps more importantly, parents might not want their children exposed to the chilling moral conclusion.
However, for adults who seriously contemplate the questions of morality from a Jewish perspective, this movie is a must-see.