What’s worse than a romantic comedy? A 1980s romantic comedy — the characters so obsessed with yuppie productivity and success, cutesy dialogue, that incessantly jangly pop-centric soundtrack narrating every major (and minor) plot point, an ending needlessly obscured by shoulder pads and teased bangs. The bad news: “Crossing Delancey” has all these things. And how. Plus ankle boots.
The better news? Joan Micklin Silver’s “Crossing Delancey” also has more than a few surprises stashed away, and they keep popping up often enough to convince us to wade through all the grating ’80s movie trademarks. There are flashes of piercing insight into the ways we repeat the same mistakes, end up striking that same confused, woe-is-me pose, become the true illumination of Einstein’s definition of insanity. But that’s what “Crossing Delancey” shows, and so beautifully: the way the characters struggle earnestly to get it right.
“Getting it right” in love is exactly what Izzy Grossman (Amy Irving) wants to do. Or, rather, that’s exactly what her spirited and intrusive grandmother Bubbie (Reizl Boyzik) wants her to do. Izzy is mostly happy with her single life and her job as a bookstore clerk, which ensures regular meetings with Manhattan’s glitterati and countless sophisticated authors. But Bubbie’s certain what Izzy needs is a man, and since Bubbie does not accept “no” — or anything that sounds like “no” — as a real word, she enlists Jewish matchmaker Hannah Mandelbaum (Sylvia Miles). Remarkably pragmatic for a matchmaker, Hannah produces a match Izzy sees as most undesirable: Sam Posner (Peter Reigert), a picklemaker with a deep soul. Since Izzy’s tangled up with Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbé), the kind of coy author who finds wide-eyed, reverent admiration a real turn-on, Sam might as well be a dead carp. He holds that much interest.
Curious, isn’t it, how “Crossing Delancey” comes nipping right on the heels of “Two Lovers”? That Netflix, always thinking one step ahead. Though markedly different in tone (there are very funny scenes in “Crossing Delancey”), both films share a protagonist uncertain which lover to choose, and why. Much like Leonard, Izzy gravitates to the troublesome but captivating figure so different from anyone she’s ever known. And, much like “Two Lovers,” there seems to be an obvious right choice here that ends up being not so clear-cut. Leonard and Izzy are two people fumbling toward happiness; they never seem to find it because they trust their ability to read people. Problem is, they’re usually wrong.
But there’s something reassuring about that in a movie like “Crossing Delancey,” which is supposed to be frivolous and light-hearted and fun. Though the film, based on Susan Sandler’s play, has all the usual cliches expected of a romantic comedy, Silver manages to steer around many of them with earnest dialogue and characters who refuse to be crammed into a mold. Hannah the matchmaker, for example, is hardly a flighty romantic or a pushy busybody; she treats matchmaking like a business, approaching it from a standpoint of practicality. “You look, you meet, you try, you see. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” she tells the skeptical Izzy. Sound advice, indeed. The talented Boyzik gives Bubbie, who could have been a tiresome, one-note character, enough spunk and heart to make her seem likable, even admirable. She worries for Izzy, but not because she thinks her granddaughter is feeble or helpless. No, Bubbie frets because she senses Izzy is dismissive, a little misguided and not quite as sharp a judge of character as she thinks. How right she is. Riegert’s Sam knows this about Izzy too, and though he continues to offer her chances to change her mind he is not unflappable. “You think my life is so provincial?” he spits out after Izzy’s particularly painful rejection of him. Rarely do leading men show this kind of kickback.
Credit Irving, a highly underappreciated actress, for making Izzy not seem like a villain or a lost cause, just a woman as confused as anyone else about what she thinks she wants. She’s wrong about the people who matter most. That she gets second or third chances to make things right is typical of a movie like “Crossing Delancey”; that she wants them and know she might not get them is anything but.