A put-upon American Jew, Herman Broder (Silver) discovers that, through a series of mishaps and miracles, he is married to three different women. Trying to keep them all sweetly in the dark proves too much for the poor man.
The dilemma of Ron Silver's Herman Broder brings a new dimension to the expression Suffering Jew. Through not-too-farfetched circumstances he finds himself an intellectual Polish refugee in the New York of 1949 simultaneously hitched to three wives.
Yadwiga (Stein) is the doting, illiterate Polish peasant who saved Herman from the Germans. As payment for his life, he's married her and brought her to Brooklyn. Then supposed-dead wife Number One, Tamara (Huston) turns up in Manhattan, physically and emotionally lamed after her miraculous escape from a Nazi death camp. Over in the Bronx is Masha (Olin), a cynical, passionate, vibrant Russian survivor of Dakow, who makes Herman feel alive.
The comic possibilities of the story build like a classic farce as Herman furtively reels between women, bewildered acquaintances and suspicious relatives. It gets to the point where he doesn't know which subway he's taking to which woman, and he's at his wits' end to meet the escalating demands on him.
From behind this structural facade, the full horror of what happened to these four people in the War gradually emerges with the losses and terrors that haunt each one more indelible than the prison tattoos on their arms.
Herman, infuriating, indecisive and spreading unhappiness, is less unsympathetic than he at first appears. His vacillating becomes a trifle tedious, as do Masha's many tantrums, but both make sense when one ultimately takes in what life has done to them. The women are stronger than he is, their various needs and more powerful personalities just more ordeals for him to submit to.
The atmosphere created is exceptional, with colour and design so right you can almost taste the Coney Island candy floss, and a marvellous soundtrack combining Maurice Jarre's score with traditional Jewish music and period pop. The performances are uniformly convincing, from Ron Silver's guilty, haunted passivity and Stein's deceptive subservience which she explodes in one overwhelming scene to comic Alan King's hustling rabbi, Judith Malina's mother-in-law and a cameo from Mazursky himself. Olin is flamboyantly seductive and impassioned; Huston, in a performance that plays rather more notes, is magnificent. This is Mazursky's best film yet and a vivid testament of life, and of hope for those tough enough to keep on living.
Mazursky and his co-writer, Roger Simon, have done a difficult adaptation job well, concentrating disparate elements of humour, sex and despair into a tragicomedy of unusual depth.