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Detective Emily Eden is a tough New York City cop forced to go undercover to solve a puzzling murder. Her search for the truth takes her into a secret world of unwritten law and unspoken power, a world where the only way out is deeper in!Written by
Director Sidney Lumet is no hack - his resume includes classics such as "The Pawnbroker," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Network." But every artist is entitled to the occasional misstep, and at least "A Stranger Among Us" is more an interesting failure than the outright disaster "The Wiz" was.
Lumet is dealing with a number of problems here, first and foremost among them a meandering script that can't quite decide what its main storyline should be. Ostensibly a crime drama centering on the murder of a merchant in Manhattan's diamond district (the stretch of 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues), it persists in wandering off in two other directions - Brooklyn's Hassidim community and its age-old traditions, and the threat of forbidden love between one of its members and the detective assigned to the case. While the scenes involving the religious rituals and customs add nothing to the plot, they at least are interesting and informative about a culture foreign to most viewers. Less compelling are those moments involving Ariel and Emily of the NYPD, since their interest in each other strains credulity, not only because their backgrounds make it unlikely, but due to the lack of any chemistry between Eric Thal and Melanie Griffith.
Griffith is Lumet's other major problem here. No doubt she was cast because at the time she was still Hollywood's flavor-of-the-month, but we are asked to suspend disbelief and accept her not only as a New York police officer, but as one who would be selected to go undercover and infiltrate the Jewish community and live with them as one of their own. Dying her blonde locks brown does nothing to make Griffith less the "shiksa" (Gentile woman) than she obviously is, and it's unlikely anyone in Crown Heights would have mistaken her for anything but. Yet - oddly enough - although plainly she's out of her element, the fish-out-of-water aspects of the story just don't work.
By the time whodunit is revealed, you may not care who was responsible for the nearly-forgotten crime lost in a jumble of sub-plots - but give it a moment or two of thought and you'll wonder how the victim's body could have been hidden where it was by the person implausibly identified as the killer. It's a plot twist that just isn't quite - forgive the pun - kosher.
The actors cast as the elder Jews and the atmosphere in which they live and worship add an air of authenticity that's missing from any of the scenes involving police procedures. Lee Richardson is impressive as the rebbe who, despite his misgivings, must welcome the street-smart female cop into his home. John Pankow, Mia Sara, and Jamey Sheridan do well in their small supporting roles, and James Gandolfini makes an appearance as a thug in a foreshadowing of his career as Tony Soprano, but Eric Thal is saddled with the almost impossible task of making us believe he would forsake his strong religious beliefs and dedication to Kabbalah for the hard-talking, gun-toting Griffith.
Despite its many flaws, "A Stranger Among Us" is one of those films that makes a long flight, rainy day, or dateless Friday night easier to endure. As a Lumet credit, it's a far cry from "Serpico," but a hell of a lot better than "The Wiz."
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