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‘Crossing Delancey’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 1988


Joan Micklin Silver
Amy Irving;
Peter Riegert;
Reizl Bozyk;
Jeroen Krabbe;
Sylvia Miles
Parental guidance suggested

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Joan Micklin Silver's subject in "Crossing Delancey" is the life of a single woman in New York, and she gives it a mellow, wistful treatment. The film gets a lot of mileage out of its modest, shrinking-violet style. What it establishes is hard to put your finger on. It's not a sensibility, exactly; it's more of a sense that the filmmaker's heart is in the right place -- that she is a sophisticated, caring, feeling person.

"Crossing Delancey" has its charms, but they are of a highly perishable sort; the more you think about it, the more mixed your feelings become. As a catalogue of New York life, the movie contains some acute observations. Silver's heroine is a bright, strikingly attractive young woman named Izzy (short for Isabelle), who works at a bookshop in Manhattan that has become one of the city's prime literary spots.

Izzy's job provides her with the chance to hobnob with New York's stellar literati. (One day, she even called up Isaac Singer on the phone.) And she enjoys the contact with creative people, especially her flirtation with a narcissistic Dutch writer named Anton (Jeroen Krabbe), who lives in an bare apartment and calls himself a vagabond sans bagages

and scribbles a flattering, preposterously suggestive inscription on the flyleaf of his latest book. (Later, over lunch, he quotes Confucius and talks about all the "plums left on your tree.")

Still, Izzy is plagued by a vague, nameless malaise. (Silver has found the perfect emotional equivalent in the Roches, whose songs are scattered throughout the film. They make folksy, easy-listening music out of thirtysomething angst.) Too many of her evenings are spent with her girlfriends, or at home alone, or giving succor to Nick (John Bedford Lloyd), who occasionally sleeps over when his wife locks him out of their apartment.

Also, too many hours are spent with Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk), her cantankerous grandmother. (A minute with Bubbie feels like an hour.) Bubbie still lives on the Lower East Side, in the old neighborhood, and she maintains the old customs. To her, Izzy's life is sham. "She lives alone," Bubbie says. "Like a dog." To help find a good man (read a good Jewish man), she enlists the aid of Hannah (Sylvia Miles), the neighborhood marriage broker, who arranges a meeting between Izzy and Sam Posner (Peter Riegert), proprietor of Posner's Pickles ("A joke and a pickle, for only a nickel").

Not surprisingly, the meeting is a disaster. Izzy sees Sam as bland and unromantic. In response, Sam tells her a story about a man who changes his hat and, by doing so, his life. Izzy, who at least for now doesn't wear hats, ain't buying and turns down his invitation for another date.

We're led to believe that because Izzy's life is empty and without purpose, she is susceptible to suggestion from men who are bad for her (read gentile). Izzy's responses to Anton's come-ons cause us to believe that she hasn't gotten around much, or that she's duller-witted than we'd hoped, and we're disappointed that she doesn't see through his phony suavity. (We're disappointed that she doesn't break a chair over the guy's head.)

We're disappointed, too, that Silver has set things up so that Izzy's only choice is between a manipulative, egocentric but exciting artist and a solid, dependable but colorless tradesman. The other alternative is loneliness, and to demonstrate this Silver has added a new ring of suffering to Dante's Inferno -- the salad bar at the corner greengrocer -- where legions of single women flock after work in their business clothes and sneakers, picking out juliennes of carrot and bits of tofu under the grim fluorescent light.

Doubtless the movie will strike a chord in many women in their thirties who have become put off by the dating life and, like the women in the film, feel trapped in the salad bar circle of hell. It seems odd, though, that Silver won't allow Izzy to take any joy from her life. The movie seems to suggest things about women -- for example, that without men they have no ability to define their lives -- that would have raised a red flag if they had come from a man. Watching the film, you can't help but think that the game has been rigged and that with a little imagination, Izzy's options would widen significantly.

Perhaps we could feel better about the movie if Riegert's character weren't so underwritten. And it would help, too, if there were a few sparks between the actors. Irving, who has been skillful in the past, can't seem to smooth the worry lines out of her forehead here. Her Izzy is either constantly vacillating or constanting apologizing for her vacillations.

Izzy is essentially passive and, in his own way, so is Sam. As an actor, Riegert is a great audience. What we know about his characters we learn from the way he listens more than from what he says or does. Riegert's characters almost never initiate anything; they're not actors, they're reactors. As Sam, Riegert communicates an underground sense of fun and self-confidence, and that, supposedly, is what Izzy ultimately responds to in him. But more important, at least from Silver's point of view, is what Sam represents -- decency, steadiness, niceness, Jewishness.

In accepting Sam we're supposed to believe that Izzy is accepting her own heritage, that she's embraced her Jewishness. But how are we to live with this conclusion? Sam and Izzy have nothing in common -- except Jewishness. Yet for Silver this seems to be enough.

In a way, "Crossing Delancey" is a film about settling, and it's strange because I don't think that's the movie Silver intended to make. Perhaps that explains why the picture, which Susan Sandler adapted for Silver from her own play, has a feeling of drabness beneath its surface amiability. Silver constructs a contrast of uptown/downtown life styles, and what she suggests, in her fuzzy, indirect, perhaps inadvertent way, is that by living uptown, Izzy is running from herself -- that her life is a lie. And that only by marrying Sam can she redeem herself and find happiness. This is such a preposterously cracked notion that it can't be taken seriously. It's as if crossing Delancey Street would be, for a Jew, a betrayal of ethnic identity.

Bubbie and Hannah are the only people who have any energy, but it's the wrong kind of energy -- they're never anything more than ethnic cartoons. And having Irving in the role makes the film a fairy story about the kiss that awakens the sleeping princess. The problem, though, is that she never wakes up.

Crossing Delancey, at area theaters, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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