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The Baltimore Sun

Movie review: 'Crazy Love'

Tribune movie critic

2½ stars (out of four)

"Crazy Love" is a documentary about a mad love affair, a movie that's about as compulsively watchable as a great tabloid headline story is compulsively readable--and also a lot more rewarding. Starting off in '50s America and traveling to the present, directors Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens take us deep into the complex story of an incredible couple from the Bronx, Burt Pugach and Linda Riss. Pugach was a Bronx-raised attorney with wild eyes and a gift of gab, and pretty, feisty Riss, also from the Bronx, was the dream girl whom Burt met in June 1957 at Joyce Kilmer Park, after seeing her from the street and becoming smitten on the spot.

Riss was 20. Pugach was 30--and married. And he never got over that crush at first sight, not when Riss discovered he was wed, not when Pugach's wife, Francine, refused a divorce, not when Riss, exasperated, left him and got engaged to someone else, and not after the amazing, sometimes violent series of events that followed, beginning with Riss' partial blinding in a lye attack from thugs hired by Pugach and the subsequent huge media blitz and stormy trial.If you aren't aware of this case (and it was a sensation at the time), you probably won't be able to predict the long mind-boggling aftermath, which consists of one shock after another, not the least of which is that these two ended up married.

It's often said that you have to see a story or its characters to believe them. That's the case here. You have to see Pugach and hear his fluent, self-justifying rap, and you have to see Riss in her chic dark glasses, to grasp the reality of what happened to them, of why it happened and of where they finally ended up. If I gave it all away here, you'd probably think I'd gone bonkers.

Even after you see and hear it all, it's hard to believe. I was unfamiliar with the Pugach-Riss story, though it was a media circus in New York City in the late '50s. And, since it's best to learn about its jaw-dropping twists and turns without much foreknowledge, we'll let the Pugaches (and their family and acquaintances) tell it.

One thing becomes really clear, and really disturbing, as we watch. Pugach is obsessively, insanely in love with his wife--and madly selfish, unable to stop giving in to his own deep desires and worst instincts. Since both of them are the products of broken homes and troubled urban upbringings, it's easy to psychoanalyze them. But Pugach's selfishness, his inability to detach love from gratification, is the key to this crazy story. There's another side to the tale though: the inability to detach gratification from love. That's another weird tale that only these two can tell.


'Crazy Love'

Running time: 1:32. Opens Friday. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language including sexual references and mature thematic elements).

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