In a fit of perverse justice, our Editor-in-Chief sentenced me to Valentine’s Day duty because I referred to Peter Riegert as the “Pickle Guy” in another review. To be fair, my whole family makes up their own titles for TV shows and movies. In a future look-back, which might temporally mean now, I’ll call Mission Impossible “Spock Without Ears.” The King’s Speech is called “The Stuttering Fuck” in my house. I love Peter Riegert. His dead-pan, wise-ass, Bronx-eyebrow deliveries made Animal House for me. I saw him with Jean Stapleton in-the-round. And as a teenager I loved Amy Irving in ways that might almost be disturbing. Nancy Allen might be fun in the front seat, but Amy Irving grabs our hearts in Carrie, who pulls it right to hell. Crossing Delancey brings Amy Irving home. Back to what looks familiar and smells great, like a kosher deli. Or vanilla extract.
Crossing Delancey is a romantic comedy, pretty much a standard in the genre. What makes it stand out are the leads: Nice Jewish girl Amy Irving as Isabelle Grossman and Peter Riegert as all-around mensch Sam Posner. Amy Irving first walked on a Broadway stage when she was two, in a play her father, Jules Irving, directed. After losing the part of Princess Leia to Carrie Fisher, Irving exploited her telekinetic gifts to land the parts of Gillian Bellaver in Brian De Palma’s 1978 supernatural thriller The Fury with Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes and Sue Snell, Sissy Spacek’s best friend, in De Palma’s Carrie. Irving was nominated for an Oscar in Yentl and sang Jessica Rabbit’s songs in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Irving showed her supple fingers in The Competition with Richard Dreyfuss and she replaced a pregnant Jane Seymour as Constanze in Amadeus for nine months at the Broadhurst Theatre (the movie would star Tom Hulce, another Animal House alumni). Peter Riegert acted on stage and peddled slop on the TV series M*A*S*H, before shrugging his shoulders in Animal House. Burt Lancaster sent him to Ireland to find himself in Local Hero; he spit out rapid-fire dialogue in Oscar and got belt-whipped by Tony Soprano himself on The Sopranos.
We immediately like Izzy. In the opening scene, the bookstore where she works is hosting a book release party and she catches someone trying to sneak out a free book in a backpack. Rather than cause a scene or call a cop Izzy steals the book and puts it back on the shelf. She offers some overnight comfort to an overworked friend whose wife is out of town. She gets $100 for every whisker she plucks from her Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk, star of the Yiddish stage in Poland, Argentina and New York), who won’t give up her purse to her self-defense-school-for-old-people partner. Bubby loves Izzy and wants to see her married (What? She should want she should get a cancer?) and settle down with a nice Jewish man. Bubbie put Izzy on the auction block for a marriage broker (Sylvia Miles played Sally in the The Dick Van Dyke Show pilot, which ultimately went to Rose Marie, and won two Oscar nominations for about fifteen minutes of screen time as a hooker in Midnight Cowboy and in 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely), who’s peddling Izzy’s picture all over the Lower East Side. Izzy may be ambivalent (yeah, I know what it means) about all this, but we like her. And we like Sam. What’s not to like? He’s got his own business, he plays handball and he’s not defined by what he does, make the best pickles south of Rivington.
Every romantic comedy needs an asshole to measure the main love interest against. It doesn’t matter if it’s a James Bond against a cross-dressing, out of work actor with mommy issues or a sexist soap opera director against a cross-dressing out of work actor with issue issues, whoever gets the girl has to get her from some putz that we know isn’t right for her. In Crossing Delancey the asshole is a megalomaniacal, self-absorbed writer played by Jeroen Krabbé, who also played Barbara Streisand’s asshole husband who made Nick Nolte look good in the psychiatric tearjerker Prince of Tides. Jeroen Krabbé made a career out of playing assholes, sometimes villains, but even they did double time as personal assholes. With a face like his, how could he play anything else? Even the name Krabbé sounds like Little Rascal code for assholetry. But Krabbé did die in attempt to save Whoopie Goldberg in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and he did it by pushing her into the East River, so how assholic could he be? (Although I gotta say I jumped into the East River once and it is nasty.) Jeroen Krabbé was a Dutch actor, painter and cookbook author. He played Satan in the 1999 TV movie Jesus with Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilate. As Anton Maes, the writer of The Cave Dweller, he first seduces Izzy by quoting a poem about ripe plums. Maes is messing around with his assistant, Myla Bondy. Myla is played by Kathleen Wilhoite, Luke’s sister on The Gilmore Girls, who also sang backup for the Carpenters, though she’ll always be the sanitarium nurse in Angel Heart to me. While we’re on the topic of small screen siblings, David Hyde Pierce, Frasier’s brother, also minces at the bookstore.
Sam turns on the charm with an anecdote about a man who’s so lost behind his little brown cap he almost misses his chance for a hot new Homburg. He can tell that Izzy can’t see past his pickle store (“So small my world? So provincial?”), until a friend she’s pawned him off on blows off her fedora. After seeing a street person sing “Some Enchanted Evening” at a Gray’s Papaya, Izzy realizes she has to choose between two alternatives: Maes wants to pick her plum and Sam wants to slip her a pickle. Izzy wants to move up to a better social, professional and romantic circle but she is too accommodating. She lets Maes condescendingly push her around, use her as an armrest when he’s not using Sam’s head for a footrest and manipulate her into a make out session on a too-small couch when he feels an “administrative need.” Izzy’s thoughtful enough to call Sam to tell him to hang in there (Even in 1988, the 555 phone prefix broke my suspension of disbelief at the movies. There’s got to be a better way.), just like Sam was thoughtful enough to let Izzy’s booty-call neighbor (John Bedford Lloyd) crash at his place when his wife kicks him out.
Joan Micklin Silver, who directed low-budget films like Between the Lines and Hester Street, which is only three blocks south of Delancey and also explores the Jewish Lower East Side experience, clearly loves the Delancey Street area. But, unlike Hester Street, Crossing Delancey has a bit of a touristy feel, like she’s visiting from Nebraska. Delancey Street is where James Cagney claims to have learned Yiddish in the 1932 movie Taxi. It’s probably also where “Clancy Street” was supposed to be set in the Bowery Boys movies. Silver lovingly captures the streets that lead to Delancey, shows the subtle ethnic changes from one block to the next until most of the signs are in Hebrew or Yiddish. The Lower East Side is sectioned off in little countries to make a melting-pot New York City version of Europe. Most of New York is like this, but the Lower East Side is where most immigrants first live after they come through Ellis Island. The old country is really Brooklyn, where the Jewish neighborhoods usually sit next to the Italian sections. I remember that most Italians spoke at least a little Yiddish. And everybody eats Chinese. (In China, Chinese food is just called food.) Crossing Delancey is a Valentine’s Day card to the block, served like a heart-shaped knish. Just by writing this I’m getting hungry. Not as hungry as Hannah Mandelbaum, the marriage broker, who looks like she showed up for every scene just to eat.
Jewish Valentine’s Day, Tu Be’av, is a celebration of matchmaking, and doesn’t happen until August. Be sure to pick up a little something from Shapiro’s Kosher Wines, “The wine you can almost cut with a knife.” Valentine’s Day is about couples. It’s a date better served in small portions. One dish, two spoons. Extra pickles. Crossing Delancey is a cut above most romantic comedies because it is made with a low-budget mindset. How could you make an epic romance when it’s a sin to buy retail?
Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars