A Stranger Among Us

You're different, Melanie!
Sidney Lumet
Melanie Griffith, Eric Thal, Jamey Sheridan, Tracey Pollan, Mia Sara
The Setup: 
Woman goes undercover in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community.

I can’t really account for why this made it to the top of my list, but I’m sure it has something to do with my desire to mock Melanie Griffith. Her line, featured in every trailer and commercial for this movie, became a well-known quote between my friends and I at the time. Not a day would go by that one of us wouldn’t suddenly turn to the other and screech: “You’re different, Ariel!”

We open with a helicopter shot passing over Brooklyn as we hear a jazzy, melancholy score. Soon we’re hangin’ with Melanie Griffith as Emily Eden [that’s right, Emily EDEN] and her cop boyfriend Nick as they case out the Zap! Nightclub. Two “perps” come by, and Nick warns Emily against pulling any of the “rogue” shit she’s known for, but they just walk up to the guys and handcuff them. Nick gets stabbed, and Melanie blows the guy away, then turns around, levels her gun and barks “You want it?!” The problem is that we’re talking about Melanie Griffith here, who is about as believable as Lindsay Lohan in the role of tough, grizzled New York City detective. And holy shit, how hot would it be if Lindsay Lohan played a tough, grizzled New York City detective? You see why they say Hollywood is out of touch.

Anyway, Melanie is reprimanded for being such a hard-boiled, rogue cop, but the entire thing is thrown off balance because we never find out what “the perps” did—they’re just “perps”—which makes us uncomfortable when Melanie blows one of them away without a thought. Regardless, she’s reassigned to a disappearance in Brooklyn.

Little does she know that her assignment is within the Hasidic Jew community, which is introduced as an alien world unto itself existing right there in Brooklyn. In this world, young Ariel is studying the forbidden Kabbalah, which traditionally only men under the age of forty are supposed to look at. You’ll notice that there’s not a lot of room for Madonna or Demi Moore within those strictures, but you know, some people gravitate toward the “forbidden.” Clearly Kabbalah Lambada will be the inevitable next step.

Another thing the Hasidim in this movie seem to have intimate familiarity with that I suspect may also be forbidden are hair styling products. Now I have had the opportunity to see several Hasidim in person in New York, and I found the ones in this movie to be considerably cleaned up and styled than I have ever seen one in real life. Which makes sense, since Melanie obviously can't have a romance with someone who, like, hasn't showered.

So Melanie's introduced to the Rebbe [like a Rabbi, but even more powerful. Not like can-shoot-lightning-from-his-fingertips powerful, but still powerful. By the way, no relation to Rebbie Jackson], which she has prepared for by wearing a short skirt and jacket, requiring Mia Sara as soon-to-be-good-friend Leah to jump around with shawls, trying to cover Mel's shoulders and exposed legs. Melanie swears in front of the Rebbe and shows all sorts of other insensitivities verging on disrespect. Mostly this happens just so her indiscretions can be met with exposition about what all-round great people the Hasidim are. So it seems that this dude Yaakov is gone, and so is $720,000 in diamonds. She is informed that there's no way Yaakov could have done it, resulting in the first of many times in which Melanie says "When you've seen what I have in this world…" She's so gritty. She even smokes, repeatedly, like everyone in 90s movies, apparently [it really looks kind of shockingly trashy now], and sometimes right in front of 'No Smoking' signs. She's a rebel cause she never, ever does what she should. Regardless, after some more cultural insensitivity [she asks what the curls they wear are, and when it's explained, replies "Whatever"], Melanie is the only one with the keen perception to spot the huge bloodstain on the ceiling. Sure enough, Yaakov's cold corpse.

Now in here's Melanie has met and been saucily flirting with Ariel, going so far as to speculate, when told she is forbidden to be alone with him, that he might try to "jump her bones." Anyway, after finding the body, Melanie decides that she MUST go live with the Hasidim. It doesn't make much sense in the movie, either. Especially since they make clear that the community is so close-knit that everyone is all up in each other's business. This involves her making her wardrobe considerably less saucy, and apparently they make up some story about why she's there, though she does indeed stick out like a sore thumb. WHO thought this was a good idea for a movie, anyway? I know, someone who saw Witness, but… anything else? But I digress. Melanie continues her shameless throwing herself at the clearly repulsed Ariel by telling him he's "cute." Now, some of you may be familiar with the legend of Dr. Shrinker, Dr. Shrinker, a madman with an evil mind, but fewer still know of his disinherited brother. Dr. Enlarger. Unfortunately that number includes Melanie, whose head, as you can clearly see below, was tragically sucked into his hair-enlargement beam. She continues to draw disability today.

So around now it's time for the part where the Hasidim come to respect Melanie, and she them, while simultaneously continuing to pepper the storyline with fun-tastic Exposition Bitz. Melanie remains relentlessly flirty, making her seem like some sort of unstable nymphomaniac, as her target, Ariel, does not seem to be responding ONE. BIT. So Melanie is supposed to be the new assistant at the jewelry store when two mobsters come in—including James Gandolfini in his first role—and say "Hey, did anyone here order a murder suspect?" Actually no, they extort the jewelers, and for a while it sure looks like they're the guilty ones. The Melanie goes to visit her Dad, a retired cop, where she emotionally blackmails him by suddenly asking what he'd do if she died. "Take out these earplugs I've been wearing for the past 30 years," he should have replied, but all he does is stammer and stumble, and Melanie takes this as a reason to have a little pity party, which is clearly what she wanted from the start, asking such a passive-aggressive question like that.

So suddenly she and Ariel are alone, although it passes without comment because it's not time for the script to call attention to it, and he reads her the sections of the sections of the Kabbalah that refer to a woman's pussy juices. SO not kidding. What, did he scan for the dirty parts? Anyway, this is where the immortal line "You're different, Ariel!" is screeched, as Melanie is trying to convince Ariel that he can't marry that boring old hag they have all picked out for him and he should come with her and learn Cosmo's 102 Sex Secrets That Will Make Him SCREAM. Again, since Ariel has betrayed not the slightest hint of interest in Melanie, she just comes off as a dangerously unbalanced erotic stalker.

Now you may have noticed that this whole review, for a "thriller," is seriously low on words like "gunfire," "explosions," "stabbing" and "intestines." And that would be because barely anything has happened except a bunch of talk, talk, talk. So it's time for a shootout, which occurs just after Melanie single-handedly takes down the mobsters. After seeing Melanie get bodily folded under a hinged counter [kind of worth it] there's a big shootout and subsequent car crash, whereupon the mobsters jump in a cab and take off. Now, as a New Yorker, I can tell you that people who are obviously being pursued and shot at are going to have a hard time finding a cab driver willing to gun it and drive up on a sidewalk and through street vendor's carts just because his fare is in a hurry. Now, almost any New York cab driver will happily run you down and spin his wheels in your entrails if it's going to mean an extra $0.03 for HIM, but they're not about to risk their lives for you. Except in the movies!

So then stabbed police partner Nick [remember him?] proposes to Melanie, because we are supposed to believe that she is so attractive everyone is after her. She refuses, because she's got to be free. Apparently there was a lot more Nick when this film originally screened at CANNES [will they just show ANYTHING?!], but he was mostly left on the floor. Then Ariel comes over to her apartment, unconvinced that the mob killed Yaakov. He knows that he's alone with her, and it's forbidden. She's in a mood for reminiscing, and ponders whether she'll turn out loveless like dear ol' dad. Ariel says something about her being angry and now follows some Melanie Griffith 'acting' that may have you, like me, staring at the screen, hand covering open mouth. She bursts into tears, shrieking "I'm not angry! I'm not angry at all! You make me feel soft on the inside!" I'm sorry, what? Woman, could you restrain yourself, please? Then Ariel agrees to make out with her [tongues are not seen], which can come as a surprise for, as I've indicated, Ariel seems to have not a thought for her except that she should die painlessly—but SOON. Anyway, kisses out of the way, they figure out in a jif who the real killer was, and hot-foot it back to wherever to catch them. You'll notice I am cleverly avoiding telling you who the real killer is. It doesn't matter—you won't care. And it's fucking dumb anyway.

So who should be holding someone hostage JUST as they arrive, but the killer! Melanie pops a gun in Ariel's hand before springing into action, but is soon knocked out [I thought this was our high-powered, tough-as-nails rogue cop?] Anyway, Ariel, who has presumably never so much as held a gun let alone fired a shot, blows the perp away with a bullet square between the eyes! Dude's a quick learner! Then Ariel meets the wife he's been promised to [but never met], and thinks she might want to dump him because he was alone with another woman, but then she quotes from the Kabbalah! Yes, the same one that is still forbidden to any man under 40 and ANY woman. And by the way, they are not exactly whispering all this in secret. God, I need to just hit myself with something.

It was truly awful. I thought it might be a little fun, and it was mildly amusing in bits, but for the most part this is something best left forgotten. The real problem is actually NOT Melanie Griffith—she just the most glaring problem—but the script. There's barely a mystery here, barely anything to keep your interest, barely a convincing romance, and the whole thing is wrapped up almost arbitrarily. It just exists because someone saw Witness and thought they could do the same thing with Hasidic Jews, but wait—what if the cop was a WOMAN?! The movie exists primarily as educational vehicle about what sensitive and quaint people the Hasidim are, prepared especially for the 7-9 people who care.

However, the most noticeable problem is… you guessed. Poor Melanie. I would LOVE to be privy to the list of actresses who turned this role down before it finally drifted down to her. Although the script IS by the guy who did Body Double, so maybe he specifically wanted her. I don't know why anyone thought she could pull off a role as a hard-boiled rogue NYC cop, and not JUST because of that voice. And why the fuck doesn't she get voice training? Okay, maybe the voice is "who she is," but the whole point of being an actress is that you're portraying other people, not all of whom speak like a cartoon squirrel. She also just, kind of, can't, uh, really act. Poor Melanie. She scored Antonio Banderas, though, so she's gotta have something going on. Or he just didn't understand enough English at the time.

Should you watch it: 

If you are a real bad-movie masochist. Everyone else stay far away.