Crossing Delancey (1988)

Dir. Joan Micklin Silver. Starring Amy Irving, Peter Riegert, Reizl Bozyk

There are more romantic movies set in New York City than there are total movies set in Idaho, but the New York of these movies is so often a basically nonspecific one. To choose one (that I like!) at random, Set It Up is a perfectly bland depiction of the city, one that’s meant to be more recognizable for a broad Netflix audience than resemble a slice of the city that actual New Yawkers might be able to see themselves in. For contrast, Nora Ephron-Meg Ryan collaborations, like When Harry Met Sally or You’ve Got Mail, hit particular neighborhoods well—the Upper West Side of You’ve Got Mail is spot on—but I also never really feel like those movies have to be set in New York. New York is the best place, but it doesn’t feel essential. Crossing Delancey does something really lovely with its Lower East Side setting which might not have an equal in the years before since Marty put the Bronx on the map. Crossing Delancey, down to the title, simply has to take place on the Lower East Side, and more precisely, it must do so in the 1980s. The kind of specificity and genuineness that comes from making a movie that has to belong to a time and place is not a guarantee of quality. It may not even be where the quality in a film comes from. All the same, that specificity gives a film energy. I don’t know that it can be quantified in the same way that you can quantify “Thelma Schoonmaker is editing your movie” or “Cate Blanchett is starring in your movie,” but it’s there nonetheless. In that early shot where Silver tracks Isabelle (Irving) as she walks on the sidewalk, striding through a neighborhood she knows but doesn’t want to be part of, the sound of the Roches playing over it, that specificity lands hard. This is its own place, its own set of signifiers which cannot be aped or copied. There is not a generic version of Crossing Delancey, and that has to count for more than something.

There’s more than something in Peter Riegert’s presence in this movie, too. Isabelle is nervous, for about a dozen justifiable reasons, about meeting Sam. Above all else, she resents being wrapped into a matchmaking tradition that seems archaic when you watch it happening in Fiddler on the Roof, let alone in Ed Koch’s New York. (Isabelle is much more easily Izzy in her grandmother’s apartment, a nickname that is much more Jewish than her given name is, and a nickname that is not coincidentally absent from the rest of her life.) It’s still a question of being “set up,” which is not something one usually entrusts to one’s grandmother, but the idea is hardly ridiculous even in Isabelle’s sufficiently au courant social circles. What makes the idea ridiculous is that Isabelle is being set up with “the pickle man,” which is not funny at all but which is of course incredibly funny. Pickles are a zany food! But there is nothing zany about Peter Riegert, who looks much older, a little stouter, than he did only a few years earlier in Local Hero. Sam Posner’s key quality is steadiness, and that steadiness makes him more handsome, more composed, more appealing. He surprises Isabelle; he surprises us. The pickle man is no kook at all, hardly seems wrapped up in a kind of Old World mania that Isabelle fears, and yet none of that is enough to keep her around for the entirety of the “date.” Yet he is firmly in our mind, cool as a cucumber (I’m not sorry enough to change this), and to be honest, leaving after a matter of minutes is probably the most normal bad thing that Isabelle does to him in a movie where there’s always one more awful thing she does to this very nice man.

I am not generally a great lover of romantic comedies, but the ones I enjoy tend to come from the The Awful Truth school or the His Girl Friday school. (They also tend to include Cary Grant, but they couldn’t put him in everything even when he was alive, so.) The Awful Truth school is the one that’s been copied most freely for that ’90s era that people miss now for reasons which I don’t profess to understand; lunacy ensues between two people who are trying to be together, but also they are not trying to be together. This is easier to do, I think, but it’s of course incredibly hard to do well. The Awful Truth requires Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, for heaven’s sake, and watching two people screw with each other this hard really requires charm (and, funnily enough, acting ability) that is hard to come by anymore. And then there’s a movie like His Girl Friday which has the trappings of romantic comedy on it, but which includes an idea that gives the movie texture and depth it wouldn’t otherwise have. In between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell giving each other the business for ninety minutes, there’s a subplot in there about the ruthlessness and cynicism of print media that scathes the movie’s newspaperman characters. In short, it’s got an idea hanging around, and the reason that matters is because it casts Walter and Hildy as people who actually may have beating hearts after all. They do some decent things (even if what Walter does is not entirely on the level) while this criminal/journalistic subplot is reaching its zenith, and it makes it easier for us to root for these lockhorns.

Crossing Delancey has some of that same DNA in it that His Girl Friday has, even though as romantic comedies go they are not alike. What’s underpinning this movie is an idea, and it’s an idea strong enough to carry a movie like this all on its own. Short of a single loud monologue in which Isabelle tells her grandmother that she is happy being single, happy with her career, and more than that fulfilled by her ancillary position to Art, we don’t need a whole bunch of reminders that Isabelle wants to leave Izzy on the Lower East Side for good. She has pretensions about her own positions in that slightly more artistic world, one where her great job is to schedule book readings and sit around and listen to authors talk while never being pressured to come up with an idea on her own. Meanwhile, what people do where she’s from seems lower, common to her; you can practically hear her complaining about the money smelling of grease like she’s escaped from Mildred Pierce. The things that enamor her of Sam are things which show how courtly he really is. He comes to a date with her wearing a trim blue suit; over Tex-Mex, which is as foreign to that guy as Texas or Mexico might be, he shares that he’s indulging the marriage broker because he already knew that he was interested in her; his hands smell of vanilla and milk, which he soaks them in after a day of work so he doesn’t smell like brine. The more Sam proves that he is not a just a working stiff (albeit a working stiff with a generationally successful business), the more Isabelle likes him.

Of course, she still treats him like a dog in ways that, frankly, got my dander up. She decides to take pity on him by setting him up with another woman she knows who’s dying to meet someone; the fact that her date with him is going so well means that we are treated to a deeply awkward scene in which her friend reveals the ruse. That Sam even speaks to Isabelle again is a sign of his open-mindedness! And yet the fact that he is still interested in her, seems capable of pushing it away because he’s into her enough to set aside boldfaced insults like that one, is not enough for her. She still leaps at the slightest sign of interest from an Amsterdam-born novelist, Anton Maes (Jeroen Krabbé), who is clearly not interested in treating Isabelle like anything more than a roll in the hay but who Isabelle has fooled herself into believing wants her. It is inconceivable that someone as sensible as her would be this silly, and yet that idea continues to creep into the picture. She has to end up with Anton, in her mind, because that is the way to prove that she is the kind of well-heeled, literary person she aspires to be. To end up with Sam, no matter how sweet or forgiving or good he is, would be to fall back into this morass of prole Jewishness that she is desperate to leave behind. In the end, watching her get angry at herself and cry when she believes that Sam has left her grandmother’s apartment is about as satisfying as watching tears in a movie gets. She’s learned a lesson, gotten a comeuppance. There’s nothing so terrible about feeling you’ve outgrown where you come from, but there is something obnoxious about feeling that way without actually having done it.

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