This 1989 Woody Allen film features two separate stories, that seemingly have nothing in common, running concurrently. One story features Woody as Cliff Stern, a struggling filmmaker and documentarian who hasn’t had much success in awhile, and is in a long and unhappy marriage to Wendy (Joanna Gleason). The only joy Cliff seems to have in his life is when he spends time with his niece, Jenny (Jenny Nichols), who is being raised by Cliff’s single sister, Barbara (Caroline Aaron). Alan Alda plays Lester, Wendy’s brother, who is a wealthy and successful television producer, whom Cliff can’t stand. But when a studio arranges to make a documentary about Lester’s live and work, Wendy convinces Lester to get them to hire Cliff, who is initially reluctant, to do it. Mia Farrow plays Halley, a producer of the documentary, and Cliff immediately becomes smitten with her, and they get closer over the course of the filming. But when Cliff finally makes his feelings known to her, she rejects him because he’s married, despite Cliff’s claims that his marriage has been over for a long time. Cliff uses the documentary to mock Lester, showing all of his bad traits, and even comparing him to Mussolini. When Lester screens it he’s outraged and fires Cliff from the project, hiring someone else to do it over. And Halley goes away to London for a new producing job.
The 2nd plot centers around Martin Landau as Judah Rosenthal, a successful ophthalmologist, who has been happily married for decades, with two adult children, and is considered a respectable member of the community. But he had been having an affair with a flight attendant named Dolores, played by Angelica Huston. After 2 years he finally ended it, but Dolores won’t accept that, and keeps threatening to tell his wife about their affair, and also about some financial improprieties he committed at his job in the past. Terrified that he’ll lose his wife and possibly his job, and his reputation will be ruined, Judah goes to his criminal brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), who arranges to have Dolores killed. The deed gets done, and Judah is in the clear, but then he becomes overwhelmed with guilt, and starts thinking about God, and faith, and wonders if he’s really gotten away with it, or is he destined for Hell because of what he did? There are a lot of fascinating discussions about morality by multiple characters during this story.
The stories connect at the end, several months later at a wedding of the daughter of Ben (Sam Waterston), a rabbi who is Lester and Wendy’s brother, and is also a patient of Judah’s, who confided his affair (but not the murder) to Ben. He had a minor subplot in this film, as he slowly lost his eyesight due to a medical condition, yet he never lost his faith or cursed what happened to him. Cliff and Wendy have decided to divorce, this wedding is to be their last family function together. We learn from a conversation with Lester that Wendy is already happily seeing another man, while Lester is still alone. Halley has returned from London and is at the wedding with Lester, whom she has gotten engaged to, which is Cliff’s worst nightmare. He’s utterly dejected, and goes to sit by himself, and briefly meets with Judah, and they have a brief conversation, where it’s clear that Judah has gotten over his guilt, still has his wife and reputation and is blissfully happy again.
Either one of those stories could have been a movie all by itself. The Cliff/Halley story could have been another Woody Allen romantic comedy, and the Judah story a darker drama, but putting them together makes for a really interesting contrast. Cliff is the “good guy” in this film, yet in the end his life is worse. He doesn’t get the girl, and is left alone. While Judah, the “bad guy”, who committed adultery and murder, gets away and everything works out for him. It’s pretty screwed up, in away, and goes against traditional Hollywood storytelling rules, but that’s what makes it work. That, and the performances of the cast, who are all perfect. Not a weak link in the bunch. Great film.
Chacebook rating: 5 STARS
Categories: WOODY ALLEN FILMS