Ideally, you would watch “Crazy Love” without knowing anything about it beyond what’s contained in these first few paragraphs. It is a documentary about two New Yorkers who met and fell in love in the 1950s, and the turbulence their relationship has endured since then. It’s a bizarre, riveting, and outrageously original story, and it’s 100 percent true. You’ll enjoy it more if you’re surprised by what happens, which you won’t be if you continue reading this review, or any other review or summary of the film, including the one-line plot outline at IMDb.com.
I would love to leave it at that, but it’s impossible to review the film without talking about some of its basic elements. And the fact is, despite knowing some of the story’s more jaw-dropping developments beforehand, I was still riveted and surprised by the movie. Reading a review won’t ruin it for you; you’ll just be slightly less flabbergasted when you see it.
“Crazy Love” does not mince words about its protagonists: These people are not right in the head, and their love for one another defies all reason. But then again, one is compelled to consider, doesn’t all love defy reason? Isn’t its irrationality part of what makes it true love?
(Here’s where you should stop reading and go see the film.)
So maybe we shouldn’t judge Burt Pugach and Linda Riss too harshly. Yes, in a fit of jealousy, the no-good Burt hired a man to throw acid in Linda’s face in 1959, permanently blinding her. And yes, after Burt served 15 years in prison for the deed, he and Linda got married and have been together ever since. But hey, love is blind — and if it isn’t blind already, that can be arranged.
Linda was a beautiful young woman in 1957, when Burt, a not-handsome, not-honest, but charming lawyer saw her sitting on a park bench in the Bronx. Their romance evolved like a storybook at first, with him sending her flowers immediately after meeting her, and both of them seeking respite from their less-than-ideal upbringings. Burt was raised by an abusive, smothering mother, while Linda lived most of her life with an aunt.
When we see them in the present, interviewed by director Dan Klores through the unforgiving lens of digital video, Linda’s eyebrows dance constantly above the rims of her dark sunglasses, her voice raspy from decades of smoking. Burt is still a larger-than-life, only-in-New-York ambulance-chaser type. They tell their story separately, each offering a different perspective.
Burt had, shall we say, ethical problems. His sharky law tactics had made him very wealthy, but he had run-ins with the bar association. Furthermore, while wooing Linda, he was still legally married to another woman in Alabama. When the first Mrs. Pugach wouldn’t grant him a divorce, he drew up fake papers to trick Linda into thinking she had.
The acid-throwing occurred after Burt and Linda’s on-again/off-again romance was off again, and she was engaged to another man. Burt went to prison for it, though you will marvel at the lengths he went to — remember, he’s a gifted attorney in his own right — to avoid it.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the lives of Burt and Linda. Their friends and family members are interviewed, too, most of them sharing that New Yawk honking accent that makes all characters, fictional and otherwise, seem more vivid. Their testimonies are expertly arranged by Klores (with co-director Fisher Stevens and editor David Zieff) to reveal the story piece by piece, one fascinating detail after another. The mark of a good documentary is when it tells its story as compellingly as the best fiction, and that’s what Klores does.
At the heart of it is this unconventional relationship between Burt and Linda, and our first inclination is to dismiss them both as emotionally unstable. Linda must have low self-esteem, we figure, to keep going back to a man who has proven to be such a scoundrel. And yet “Crazy Love” reminds us that life isn’t always black-and-white like that. Burt’s certainly not getting off easy, living his life now with the braying, hectoring Linda. If the crazy kids are happy, then hey, who are we to judge?
A- (1 hr., 32 min.; )