* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed and written by Woody Allen

With Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Martin Landau, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, and Sam Waterston.

Woody Allen’s latest, Crimes and Misdemeanors, contains some of the best sustained filmmaking the aggressively self-made auteur has turned out in years, at least since 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose. But the movie is as bitter as a two-day-old cup of coffee, and just about as cold. Allen’s vision, always self-centered, has turned ever more inward, until the familiar New York setting of his films has taken on the aura of a psychic landscape, a minefield of deliberately sprung moral booby traps.

Perhaps frustrated by his clumsy grappling with Big Ideas in his last two films, the calamitously dopey September and Another Woman, Allen has constructed in Crimes and Misdemeanors a two-track narrative that gives his audiences what they want–Allen telling jokes in a comedy–and satisfies his own yearnings for solemnity with a fable of moral turpitude. The result is an interesting mixture of self-awareness and obtuseness; Allen comes off as completely aware of his own failings, yet utterly incapable of mitigating them.

The funny narrative involves Allen as documentary-film maker Cliff Stern, struggling with a sputtering career and an unhappy marriage, both of which are made even more intolerable by the looming presence of his fabulously egotistical and successful brother-in-law, Lester. Hilariously played by Alan Alda (also making something of a comeback here), Lester is a mountain of insensitivity, utterly absorbed in propagating his own success.

Lester, a TV sitcom producer, has somehow convinced a public television network to include him as a subject in a documentary series on influential thinkers and artists, and, as a favor to his sister, has steered the job of directing the episode to Cliff, who is appalled both by the job itself and by his financial need to take it. As he records Lester waxing philosophical in banal axioms (he keeps repeating, “If it bends it’s comedy, if it breaks it’s tragedy” like some glib, loony mantra), however, Cliff meets associate producer Halley Reed (played, inevitably, by Mia Farrow), who shares his repugnance for their subject. Drawn to each other emotionally, they begin to fall in love as much through intellectual sympathy as sexual attraction, and they decide to try to make a documentary on an Erich Fromm-type philosopher-psychologist who has long fascinated Cliff.

Meanwhile, back in the other part of the movie, a more typical late-Allen quandary is unfolding. Prominent ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) finds that, just as he is reaching the pinnacle of professional and philanthropic success, his private life is threatening to unravel. A mostly loyal family man, he is trying to break off his affair with aging stewardess Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston). She reacts hysterically, making serious threats to wreck his marriage. When persuasion has no effect, Rosenthal turns to his brother, a seedy type with underworld connections, who arranges to have Dolores bumped off. This solves Rosenthal’s immediate problem, but plunges him into a morass of despair.

All of this action unfolds with the maximum of verbal teeth gnashing. Rosenthal dithers and worries before he takes the big step, going so far as to discuss theology with one of his patients, a rabbi who is slowly going blind. This rabbi is one of Allen’s typically excruciating constructs, a symbolic straw man with no real dramatic function, a mere rhetorical presence. In fact, despite a tremendous performance by Landau and a pretty good one by Huston, this part of the film never amounts to much more than a catalog of behavioral tendencies meant to illustrate Allen’s perceptions of the contemporary bourgeoisie’s moral bankruptcy. Too often this condemnation of the exigent morality of modernity is expressed merely as a nostalgia for the certainties of childhood. Given that vapidity, any claims to tragedy–which are clearly explicit, thanks to Lester’s trite clues–seem merely boastful. Tragedy is a function of character, not a schematic variation of plot, and the characters in this narrative stream are incapable of resisting the currents into which Allen plunges them.

However, just as prefab fatalism undermines Allen’s sober side, his sense of inevitable doom is the source of most of what is really funny about his comedy. Cliff’s sense that failure lurks around every corner gives his sardonic wit an edge. If he wasn’t so sure he was sentenced to a life dominated by hucksters, he wouldn’t be as funny. So Allen’s fiery barbs hit one target after another as long as he tries to be comic. Even his own sense of seriousness comes under attack, particularly when he finally unveils the film he’s made about Lester, an insane cascade of images that puts Lester’s words into the mouths of Mussolini and a jackass.

Of course, these tales travel not on parallel tracks but on converging ones, and their meeting is the film’s major disappointment. The blind rabbi with whom Rosenthal has had his ethical tete-a-tete is Ben (Sam Waterston), Cliff’s other brother-in-law–Lester’s brother–and everyone meets up at his daughter’s wedding. Since tragic form calls for a final, sudden reversal–the peripeteia–Allen provides one in this scene.

Despite the cliched situation–weddings are a worn-out setting for unhappiness–Allen gets an enormous amount of mileage from this final sequence. The dramatic reversal, which involves Cliff’s sudden unhappiness and Rosenthal’s equally unexpected moral equanimity, occurs with tremendous force, an indication of how far Allen has come as a metteur en scene and dialogue writer. Equally important is Allen’s ability to hold himself up for scrutiny. One of his best moments as a performer comes when he holds the camera on his own face, refusing to display any extreme emotion, merely looking old, devastated, and at a loss for words.

As an actor, Allen seems willing to concede the possibility that life supplies moments of pain that are beyond understanding. And as a comic, he clearly has a profound conception of the inadequacy of human response to the daily routine of minor injustices. But as a tragedian, Allen is still stuck in some sort of high school classroom, cribbing the form, but never the substance, of vaunted classics.