I’ve often thought that the mark of a movie that really makes an impact on pop culture is that rip-off films follow. Take “Jaws,” for example, after it hit it big, movies were pitched (and eventually made) that were “Jaws with an octopus,” “Jaws with a killer whale,” “Jaws with piranhas.” For genre flicks like this, it’s to be expected. But for today’s film, I imagine there was a pitch meeting where they uttered the phrase “It’s “Witness,” but with Hasidic Jews!” Under the direction of Sidney Lumet one would’ve thought this would turn out better…instead we have the Razzie Award winner “A Stranger Among Us.”
The film focuses on Emily Eden (Melanie Griffith), a tough New York cop with a knack for shooting first and asking questions later. When her latest bust ends up landing her partner/lover with a knife in his back, she is assigned a missing person case. The young man who is missing is a Hasidic Jew. When Emily shows up to speak with the Rebbe of the Hasidic community (Lee Richardson) she is, of course, wearing a very high skirt and throwing around lots of sailor talk…just in case you hadn’t figured out that there was going to be a big “fish-out-of-water” plotline.
It doesn’t take long for Emily to discover the body of the young man hidden in the ceiling of his family’s diamond-cutting establishment. The evidence seems to indicate to Emily that someone inside the Hasidic community is probably responsible, but the Rebbe finds it inconceivable that any of his people could be capable of murder. So…Emily decides she needs to go inside and pose as a member of the Hasidic community to find the murderer. She ends up moving in with the Rebbe and his family, which includes son Ariel (Eric Thal), daughter Leah (Mia Sara), and “adopted” daughter Mara (Tracy Pollan).
Very little of the film, from this point on, focuses on the investigation of the murder. There are some shady characters who come into the diamond district selling “protection” (among them a very young and slender James Gandolfini) who look like good suspects, but most of the film focuses on Emily as she adjusts to life in the Hasidic community. And, of course, as she starts to fall for hunky Hasid Ariel. This plot development can be predicted from the moment these two first appear together on screen.
Looking at the Hasidic community is intriguing, I’ll at least give the film that, but that’s about all the film has going for it. This has to be one of the most predictable films I have ever seen! Any seasoned moviegoer can predict the story arc of pretty much every major character as soon as they are introduced. The script is clunky. The scene where Griffith goes into great detail about her sudden revelation as to who is really the killer is incredibly painful to watch…especially since everyone in the audience had it figured out an hour ago. The scene in which Ariel and Emily discuss some of the sexually charged passages of the Kabbalah, before Madonna made it fashionable, is also really awkward and almost embarrassing to witness.
Sidney Lumet has directed some great films! He did “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” and “Network.” He had to have seen that Griffith’s performance was…well…worthy of the Razzie Award it would earn. Sad to say, the film was entered in the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a very negative response. Lumet even made changes before it’s theatrical run, but apparently the film couldn’t be salvaged. He does do some good things visually, but it’s not enough to save it from a weak and predictable plot. Perhaps “Witness with celebrity Scientologists” will turn out better.