Crossing Delancey (***½)

Posted on September 6th, 2003 in Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

I don’t live in New York, I’m not a member of the literary intelligentsia, I’m not Jewish, I’m not single, and I’m not female. Crossing Delancey tells the story of a single, Jewish woman who lives in New York, and whose work has her rubbing elbows with noted, famous authors. Despite having nothing in common with the main character, Izzy (short for Isabelle), I *love* this movie. I think that it’s because I identify with Sam, the pickle man, who is Izzy’s sporadic suitor.

Izzy is played by Amy Irving, in one of her best, perhaps very best, roles. Izzy is an intelligent, upwardly mobile professional who seems to be making a good life for herself doing something she loves. She has a good, rent-controlled apartment, works at a prestigious old-style bookstore, hobnobs with the upper crust of the New York literary scene, and spends personal time with her life-long girlfriends. Her only remaining connection to her past is her grandmother, Bubbie, who still lives in the old neighborhood in the old way. Izzy is dutiful in visiting her Bubbie and helping her with shopping, etc, but resists her Bubbie’s insistent meddling into her personal life. Bubbie firmly believes that Izzy “…lives alone, like a dog. Only a dog should live alone, not people!” Izzy insists that she has a great life, and doesn’t need a man to feel complete.

Unbeknownst to Izzy, Bubbie retains the services of the local matchmaker to help Izzy find a husband. Izzy doesn’t find out about the setup until the wheels are already in motion, and she is too respectful of her Bubbie to just leave once she finds out. So, she dutifully, but coldly, endures a lunchtime meeting around Bubbie’s kitchen table with the matchmaker and her blind date, Sam. Sam is played by Peter Riegert, in a marvelously understated performance. Sam owns a pickle stand on the lower East side, which he inherited from his father. A pickle man from the old neighborhood is definitely not what Izzy wants in a man, as she tends to get all doe-eyed and mushy over a prattling, Euro-trash author, played with perfect pitch by Jeroen Krabbé.

That’s the basic setup of Crossing Delancey, and the rest of the story follows Izzy as she goes through the process of separating what she thinks she wants from what she actually needs. There’s nothing earth-shattering or original about the plot, but the story is imbued with wit, warmth, and humor, and all of the characters feel real, and it’s easy to care very much what happens to them. Amy Irving does an excellent job of portraying Izzy’s angst as she struggles with the forces pulling her between her old and new worlds.

The movie portrays a literary world populated by semi-talented, blathering, self-congratulatory “noted authors”, who are surrounded by fawning, pseudo-intellectual wannabes. I’m actually distilling down to one sentence what is only eventually implied by the movie, and this characterization of the literati is not heavy-handed or comical. But the movie does seem to be telling us that the only difference between the fawn-ers and the fawn-ees is that one group was lucky enough to have sold a few books, and the other group sees that as the highest achievement of mankind.

Izzy is definitely a fawn-ee, with a genuine love of literature, but with a blind spot that seems to have her equating today’s bestselling “serious” authors-du-jour with the classic masters of writing. Given this predisposition, it is impossible for her to notice, much less appreciate, the subtle charms and non-egotistical confidence of a guy who has to soak his hands in milk and vanilla to get rid of the pickle smell. Sam pitches a little woo her way, and she eventually has to acknowledge that he seems like a good guy, but that he’s just not part of her world. Sam takes this news with equanimity, and does not chase her, but events (and meddling yentas) eventually put them back on each other’s radar.

Sam has a lot of characteristics that I admire, and that I strive to nurture in my self. Sam is very centered and has a strong sense of self, and doesn’t look for external validation of his worth. He runs a pickle stand with his brother, he lives in the old neighborhood, he plays handball, he helps the local bubbies with heavy chores, he’s witty and engaging, and through all of these small things he makes the world a better place. He doesn’t need anyone to praise him for what he does, or to tell him that he’s great, because he already knows who he is, and he knows the right things to do, and he does them. It’s very simple, subtle, and non-flashy. Still waters run very deep, indeed.

Anton the Dutch writer (Jeroen Krabbé’s character), on the other hand, is a charming-yet-angsty manipulative-tortured-genius type. The movie explores one of the standard relationship conundrums, which is why are women sometimes unable to see through brash flashiness and pathetic egotism and recognize jerks? (Nice guys everywhere would love to know, since it would sure save everyone a lot of time.)

But that conundrum is the heart of this film, and it makes for a very interesting, funny, charming, and heart-warming story. Of special note is Reizl Bozyk, who plays Bubbie. This was her first, and only, film appearance, after a career on the Yiddish vaudeville stage, and she gives a wonderful performance as the loving grandmother who seems to be doddering and out of touch, while all the time knowing exactly what she’s doing.

As we go through life our beliefs and philosophies continually change. In the end, I think the message of this film is that going back and re-embracing things that were previously discarded is not tantamount to compromise or settling, but instead is something that we should all be open-minded enough to do.

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