February 5, 2021
zzy (Amy Irving), the 33-going on 34-year-old Uptowner at the center of the late Joan Micklin Silver’s excellent Crossing Delancey (1988), thinks of herself as a woman who has it all. She loves her job (she works at an elite bookstore where she frequently organizes well-attended public readings), has plenty of friends, and has a pretty nice rent-controlled apartment all to herself. While she isn’t ruling out marriage, she doesn’t feel like she needs
a husband to be happy. But Izzy’s doting grandmother, Ida (Reizl Bozyk, in a warm and wonderful performance in the maternal Thelma Ritter mode), doesn’t altogether believe Izzy when she says she’s satisfied. Ida, whom Izzy spends a lot of her free time with, once heard a professor say that if you’re lonely, you’re sick — and she can see this sick loneliness in Izzy even if Izzy can’t see it herself. So she calls a friend of hers, a vivacious marriage broker named Hannah (Sylvia Miles), to set up a date.
Izzy’s would-be suitor is Sam (an effortlessly charming Peter Riegert), a considerate and sharp-witted businessman who owns a pickle shop. It’s clear to us that there’s a spark there. But Izzy tells Sam at the end of their first date that this just isn’t her style, and she doesn’t see this working out. (It doesn’t help that the lunch Hannah sets up is in Ida's apartment, with both older women breathing down the potential couple’s necks.) The subtext is that Izzy, constantly surrounded by self-important literary glitterati, thinks dating a “pickle man” is beneath her, and in this moment fears of appearance-keeping trump all. In her mind she’s meant to end up with someone who’s both impressive on the page and in life. Perhaps recurrent bookstore guest Anton (Jeroen Krabbé), a handsome but exhaustingly self-impressed author whose work Izzy loves because of its “deceptive accessibility.” (It reads like pulp fiction, but then you hear music, she tells him one day over lunch.)
In Crossing Delancey, Izzy’s treatment of Sam, whom she decides she might give a chance after all, can be a little frustrating — unfortunately she doesn’t keep her indecisiveness quiet. (Early on she asks Sam out on a date only as a ruse to try to pass him off to a friend, played with appealing self-awareness by Roches member Suzzy Roche; another time, Izzy shows up several hours late to a dinner with him because she was busy canoodling with Anton.) But the aim in this heartfelt, soulful movie is not, I don’t think, to offer us a dreamy cinematic romance, even though one finds Sam, and the finale of the film, very touching in a romantic-comedy sense. (“You’re a nice guy — maybe I just can’t handle that,” Izzy admits to Sam, who is so literally and emotionally generous he’s almost too good to be true, in a later scene.) The movie is an affecting portrait of a woman coming to terms with the fact that she might want something more out of life after all — and that that something more might not be what she thought it would be. It can be hard to work up the guts to give yourself over to something that could usher in change once you’ve settled into a comfortable routine, and Irving captures this unease sympathetically.
Irving’s performance articulates a woman always searching for life’s poetry, to an almost pretentious degree. (When she sets foot in an empty apartment in one scene, for instance, she casually notes that “there’s something restful about a bare room — no history, no baggage,” like she was preparing an essay lede aloud.) She’s spent so much time inside her head, searching and searching for a deeper lyricism in everything, that at this point in her life it’s like she can’t trust something when it appears right in front of her and it’s simple and exciting — not able to be easily picked apart. In the course of Crossing Delancey, she slowly learns how to trust her instincts, even when they may lead her into nerve-rackingly unexplored territory.
We can predict where it’s all going to end up when, in one memorable scene, she’s picking up some takeout from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and an eccentric walks in and loudly starts singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” When this stranger belts “once you have found him, never let him go,” she’s looking at Izzy, still mulling over whether she wants a romance with Sam, right in her bright-blue eyes. This strange singer in garish makeup is like the cosmos incarnate, working overtime to give Izzy a sign to let loose.
We root for this indecisive heroine in spite of some of her more vexing decisions because her anxieties ring so true. (Though one wishes the screenplay, adapted by Susan Sandler from her play, was chattier than it was — we never get a chance to hear Sam and Izzy have an in-depth heart-to-heart.) I can’t think of many people who don’t instinctively get freaked out at first when an opportunity comes their way that, while likely positive, could be major enough to disrupt the pleasant existence they’ve gotten used to. Crossing Delancey suggests what might happen if the narrative of a romantic-comedy movie were grafted onto life — a place where the genre’s big emotions, plot contrivances, and sudden appearances of soulmates would likely feel more than anything a little overwhelming at first. A