A Stranger Among Us
1992 Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Melanie Griffith, Eric Thal, John Pankow, Tracy Pollan, Lee Richardson, Mia Sara, Jamey Sheridan.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 24, 1992
Say kaddish for this one, gang. Melanie Griffith proves that what they say about heredity is true. She's inherited all the acting talents of her mother, Tippi Hedren. Which is not to say that Griffith can't be good, given the right role and the right director. But do we believe that her Kewpie pulchritude is not an impediment to her plausibility as a tough-as-nails New York City detective? And should you be capable of gulping that one down, then how about her credibility as she goes undercover as a Hasidic Jew? Goy in the Hood, anyone? Griffith plays a cowboy cop who won't call for backup and maybe uses her gun too frequently and, whose recklessness as the movie starts, causes the brutal knifing of her partner/boyfriend during a bust. Consequently, she's handed this innocuous, low-profile missing person case that thrusts her cynical, mini-skirted butt into the heart of New York's Hasidic community of fundamentalist Jews. The missing person case turns into a murder mystery and before you can say “Oy vey,” Griffith has moved into the home of the rebbe, the spiritual leader of the community. (It is one of the movie's tenuous presumptions that the resolution of this case depends on successful undercover surveillance.) Narratively speaking, it's a pretext for Griffith's character (who, by the way is subtly named Emily Eden) to discover the emptiness of her own life through her contact with these devout and ethical worshippers. Eden is, perhaps, supposed to be a blank slate but still, there is no excuse for her constant gaucherie. Even poodles are trained to have better manners. I blame the scriptwriter, Robert J. Avrech (Body Double). Her curious questions about the arcane customs she observes, are punctuated by vacuous exclamations like, “No shit!” or “Wow, you guys sure have a lot of rules,” or “Come on; eat the eclair -- I won't tell anyone.” My favorite bit of dialogue? Hands down, it's when Eden's informed that the rebbe's family all died “in the camps.” She seems honestly baffled, as though she were trying to figure out if they all died in a boating accident or something. But then the mention of Auschwitz triggers a glimmer of recognition. (Doesn't Eden remember Griffith's last movie, Shining Through, in which she goes behind enemy lines during World War II and consorts with Jews?) On top of all this, the script has the audacity to have this horny little shiksa seduce the rebbe's son (Thal, in a memorable screen debut) and heir apparent. A more absurd match can not be imagined. A Stranger Among Us at least has the sense to put Lumet at the directing helm (when a script cries Noo Yawk, the call automatically goes out for Lumet -- Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon). How Lumet managed to get Rembrandt, himself, to serve as lighting technician, I'll never know but every shot is bathed in the artist's unmistakable golden glow. And the music -- whenever it swells (which is frequently), you expect to see Zero Mostel come deedle-deedling around the corner. Though this movie is indefensible in terms of virtually any critical standard I can call to mind, I wouldn't have wanted to miss a single second of it. This movie may be the ultimate definition of high concept.