Mentl, The Yeshiva Ploy

To any casual moviegoer, it comes as no surprise that a starlet now growing quite long in the tooth like Melanie Griffith should show up in an embarrassment such as A Stranger Among Us. From 1988's passable Working Girl to this year's abominable Shining Through, Tippi Hedren's problem child has built a career on the aesthetic equivalent of helium: A schoolgirl's warble, prom queen's self-consciousness, and contrived varnish over the eyes have been sold as tools of the acting trade. Given her measly talents, only submental sentimentalists could hope for a Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep to shine through here.

But what siege of madness, impoverishment, or senility could have propelled a filmmaker as gifted -- and experienced -- as Sidney Lumet into this folly? The veteran director of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico has made a few mediocre movies over a long career mostly devoted to the streets of New York, but nothing like this.

Ever miscast, Melanie attempts a feeble shot at potraying a New York police detective named Emily Eden -- hardened, edgy, and hollow from the brutal rigors of the job. But as Griffith waxes and mugs tough and singsongs through the station house early on, she's no more convincing than an extroverted second-grader play-acting in the voluminous folds of a cop's uniform. When, a little while later, Emily's assigned to go undercover among a community of Hassidic Jews on a missing-persons case, you might hope for something akin to a Woody Allen ethnic-slapstick assault on Witness.

No such luck. A hint of Lumet's legendary street wisdom remains on the screen here (he also directed The Pawnbroker, Prince of the City, and Q&A), but Griffith's intrusion into Jewish orthodoxy evinces none of the tension or emotion of Harrison Ford's foray among the Amish. Whether schmoozing with the Rebbe (Lee Richardson) or finding herself attracted to the intense young Hassid scholar, Ariel (unknown Eric Thal has landed the instructional Kelly McGillis part), we can no more forget that it's infantile, goofy Griffith up there than when she ambled ungainly in her spying-on-Hitler adventure for Michael Douglas in Shining Through. This buxom babe is a genius when it comes to eliciting an audience's suspension of belief.

Screenwriter Robert J. Avrech (Body Double) was born into an Orthodox Jewish family himself, and he once lived on an Israeli kibbutz. His most valuable service here is to provide a mini-tour of Hassidic life -- largely through Ariel's sister Leah (Mia Sara), who gives the same introduction to Detective Eden. As Ford did in Witness, Griffith supposedly absorbs the lessons of a simpler, more disciplined, less adorned life. But nothing sticks to her essential weightlessness: It's hard to believe she's absorbed anything.

By the end, you can't wait to get out of Boro Park. Mystery holds up about as well as Melanie in A Stranger Among Us.

Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Robert J. Avrech; with Melanie Griffith, Eric Thal, John Pankow, and Tracy Pollan.



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