If you're looking for another reason to hate lawyers or put off getting married then let the demented relationship of Linda Riis and Burt Pugach be your cautionary tale. Though directors Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens call their tabloid documentary Crazy Love, it isn't just a cutesy title celebrating the affections of two lovable eccentrics. It's the disturbing and fascinating tale of a profoundly dysfunctional couple who will test your capacity for empathy and understanding.
In 1959, Pugach was a 32-year-old hotshot ambulance-chasing lawyer who ran his own nightclub, produced movies and cheated on his wife while she cared for their mentally disabled daughter. In a romance made for the tabloids, Burt spotted 20-year-old Linda on a New York street and was struck with obsession at first sight. Vowing to make her his, Burt used his wealth and influence to charm the Bronx beauty into a relationship. But when Linda discovered he was married with no intention of divorcing, she called things off and struck things up with another guy. Unfortunately, Burt was demented with a side of crazy. He hired a trio of thugs to throw acid in her face. And then the story just gets weird.
Hitting you with one outrageous revelation after another, Klores and Stevens keep things even-keeled, balancing the lurid absurdity of the couple's anti-romance with a deliberate and unadorned approach that lets Burt and Linda casually explain the insanity in their own words. Their personal involvement turns the lurid and ridiculous facts of their lives into something unnervingly plausible. Behind her oversized sunglasses and long cigarettes, Linda is disturbingly blasé as she explains each turn of their increasingly twisted relationship.
Burt, on the other hand, casually dismisses that he did anything wrong. Discussing their troubled childhoods, self-loathing and social awkwardness, there are times where things almost begin to make sense. But then one or the other will justify a particularly freakish turn and you realize there's no way you could understand these confounding lunatics. Columnist Jimmy Breslin hits the nail on the head when he describes the two as "criminally insane."
As fascinating as Crazy Love is, Klores and Stevens struggle with pace and style. They interject stills, newspaper clippings, television footage and talk shows wherever they can, but they mostly rely on talking heads to tell the story. If it weren't for the strange couple's eager participation, the film wouldn't be much better than an A&E documentary. Despite their rudimentary approach, however, Crazy Love captures the incredible weirdness of Burt and Linda's story without making it seem arch or sleazy. Instead, the doc subtly asks questions. What are the limits of forgiveness? How is love defined and when does reality override morality?
If you could take every stupid, obsessive, jealous, and codependent relationship you've ever had and distilled them into a single romantic experience, Crazy Love would be the result. Though the filmmakers never find greater meaning in their tortured anti-fairy tale, they do deliver a fascinating freak show with enough sordid twists to fill an entire season of cable documentaries.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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