This 1989 movie marks the culmination of Woody Allen's most brilliant decade of movie-making, and is considered by many to be his best film ever. Intelligently crafted, it grapples with universal human themes such as the nature of morality, love, and happiness, tackling these weighty subjects through two parallel stories.
The first revolves around Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), an opthamologist and philanthropist who, on the eve of the dedication of a new opthamology wing paid for by his generous donation, discovers a letter from his lover of two years, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), to his wife Miriam (Claire Bloom). Judah hastily burns the letter, though not before reading it and discovering that Dolores wants to meet Miriam and let her know "what kind of man she is married to". It turns out that Judah has been trying to break off their relationship, but Dolores is determined to hang on. As the movie progresses she becomes increasingly neurotic and demanding, refusing to be dumped by the man she has built her life around. Judah confesses the unpleasant situation to his long-time friend Ben (Sam Waterston), a compassionate rabbi who is slowly but inexorably losing his sight to a rare eye disease. Ben counsels coming clean with his wife - what choice does Judah really have?, he argues - but Ben believes his wife will never forgive him. So he calls on his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a "bad seed" who lives an underworld criminal life. Jack's counsel is simple: murder. Will the increasingly desperate Judah accept this black alternative, and, if he does, what will the consequences be?
The other story concerns Cliff Stern (Allen), an idealistic and unsuccessful maker of earnest political documentaries. He escapes to afternoon movies with a favourite niece, who is fleeing a neurotically lonely widowed mother who makes some bad choices in search of companionship. Cliff is unhappily married to Joanna (Wendy Stern); he likes one of her brothers, Ben (the rabbi), but is intensely jealous of the other, successful and wealthy television producer Lester (Alan Alda). But when Lester offers Cliff the chance to produce a PBS documentary on him - only because Joanna has begged him to - Cliff agrees, for he needs the money. During filming, Cliff finds himself drawn to one of the associate producers, the brainy beauty Halley Reed (Mia Farrow). Together, they sneer at Lester's pretensious pontifications about comedy and the nature of funny ("If it bends, it's funny; if it breaks, it's not funny."). They play hookey from work to watch movies; Cliff shows her highlights of the reams of footage he has filmed of philosopher Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann, in real life a renowned clinical psychologist and author of The Anatomy of Loving), who waxes eloquent on the nature of love and human relationships. But when Levy commits suicide, Cliff's idealism seems to turn to dust. Halley, meanwhile, has reservations about getting involved with a married man; Cliff's attempts to mollify her by claiming that his marriage is bound to fall apart soon just seem feeble and self-serving. Seemingly inevitably, Lester, an inveterate womanizer, fixes his gaze on Halley: will she succumb to his considerable charms and deny Cliff his romantic fantasies?
The movie interweaves these two narrative threads with flashbacks to the protagonists' childhoods, clips from classic black and white movies, old newsreel footage of Mussolini, and interactions with other minor characters to yield a complex tapestry that is replete with nods to film noir, romantic comedy, social satire, and documentary. It also has all those vintage Allen visual hallmarks we've come to know and love: gorgeous shots of Manhattan, beautiful book-filled homes, and a cast clad in warm comfortable-looking tweed and cashmere clothes. This movie garnered Academy Award nominations for best director, best screenplay, and best supporting actor (Landau). Highly recommended.