'A Stranger Among Us': A 'Witness' it's not

July 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If I were a rich man, I wouldn't have had to see "A Stranger Among Us." Lord, I ask You: Would it have mattered so much?

You go to a mystery with cops and guns and murders, set on the mean streets of New York City, good dirty fun, but "Fiddler on the Roof" keeps breaking out. It's "Lethal Shiksa."

Melanie Griffith plays a tough New York police detective who, after shooting a fleeing suspect, is sent not to jail but to Brooklyn to investigate a missing person in the close-knit, mysterious Hasidic community.

In short order, she discovers that not only is the boy missing, he's dead, stowed in the rafters. On top of that, $700,000 in diamonds is missing (the Hasidim dominate New York's diamond trade). She suspects an inside job, though the rebbe (Lee Richardson) cannot believe that the world's corruption has infiltrated his ethereal, faith-obsessed community. So she goes "undercover" (i.e., stops dying her hair, starts wearing flats) and soon locates likely suspects, including two thuggish Mafiosi. At the same time she has an undeniable attraction to the rebbe's spiritual son Ariel (Eric Thal) and soon, despite the difference in their cultures. . . . Yes? You in the back, you think you've got it?

"Witness"!

That's right. "Witness": genders inverted, one exotic culture subbed for another. "Witness," but not nearly as good. Melanie ++ Griffith is no Harrison Ford, and director Sidney Lumet cruises through this movie on autopilot so sleepily that -- great background or not ("Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon") -- he's no Peter Weir. (In fact, the best thing about "A Stranger Among Us" is how it makes you yearn to pop "Witness" into the VCR.)

The fundamental difference between the two is that "Witness" really was a mystery; Lumet isn't remotely interested in the mystery or thriller elements of "A Stranger Among Us," at least by the evidence of the baldness of the plot with its red herrings and most obvious suspect gambits and the utter inanity with which the action sequences have been staged.

He's much more interested in Hasidic culture, and the movie keeps halting in its tracks as it delivers big capital letter set pieces -- the Baking of the Bread, the Dancing of the Young People, the Wedding -- that are staged like musical numbers. You keep waiting for the rebbe to belt out "Tradition."

But the whole thing is coarsely imagined. Of course the worldly Griffith must ultimately be offered a taste of salvation by these decent, God-loving people, but Robert J. Avrech's screenplay gives her a curiously vulgar, predatory personality. She has no respect for the Hasidim, even to the point of considering them weirdos. She really wants to have sex with young Ariel and goes all pouty and superior when he turns her down.

And was it really necessary, Mr. Lumet, to manipulate the plot so that the most spiritual of the Hasidim must actually pull a handgun and blow away a scumbag in synagogue? Is nothing sacred? Is nothing in bad taste? Must we complete the American arc that maintains that a man ain't really a man unless he's a killer?

Griffith is whiny, but not as bad as usual. Thal is actually quite fine as the young man who is so passionate about his faith. And now and then Lumet shows strange flashes of his old talent. After a car chase, gunfight and wreck that can only be described as hopelessly pedestrian, Lumet lets Griffith close with a man she's just Glocked; he's dying, but there's an aching human moment when he confesses fear and guilt and innocence. Both of them, however briefly, are real people. But such moments are too few to make any real difference.

'A Stranger Among Us'

Starring Melanie Griffith and Eric Thal.

Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG-13.

... **

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