C+

Crazy Love

The story of Burt and Linda Pugach has provided tabloid fodder for 40 years, off and on, as new chapters are added to a strange and lurid yarn about their unusual hot-and-cold relationship. Because they're now settled into old age—he the henpecked husband, she the caustic yet weirdly devoted wife—it's tempting to consider their turbulent history as kinda cute, casting the Pugachs as just another pair of bickering retirees. Dan Klores' shallow documentary Crazy Love does just that, rehashing a well-covered story for a few laughs rather than probing deeper into the minds of two deeply disturbed people. The film's failure is especially vexing considering Klores' access to the Pugachs, who appear all-too-eager for the newfound publicity, yet are never pressed so hard that they can't spin the story in a favorable direction. Rarely has psychosis looked so adorable.

As an enterprising (read: shady) young ambulance-chaser in '50s New York, Burt Pugach raked in the princely sum of $80,000 a year, which in those days was more than enough to compensate for his nerdy looks and obsessive personality. When he spotted Linda Riss on the street, Burt was immediately smitten by her ivory-skinned beauty, and he pulled out all the stops to impress his reluctant turtledove, including flights in his private plane and trips to the city's hottest nightclub. Though wowed by his ostentatious spending habits, Riss couldn't will herself into loving Pugach, so she retreated into a relationship with another man who proposed to  her. In a jealous fit, Pugach hired three men to throw lye in Riss' face, which left her nearly blind and permanently maimed. Though Pugach was sentenced to 30 years in jail for the crime, he was released on parole in 1974, and his persistent devotion to Riss eventually wore down her defenses. The two married shortly thereafter.

The madness doesn't end there, but Crazy Love seems anxious to move past the revelations that come. The tone of Linda Pugach's reflections about her husband suggests resignation more than love: Having been ruined for other men by her disfigurement, she has lost the will to fight him; the best she can do is kill him by a thousand passive-aggressive paper-cuts. As for Burt, the depths of his psychosis are bottomless, rooted in the daily beatings he received from his mother as a boy, and manifested in shocking abusiveness. There's plenty of black comedy in their twisted affair, but a more substantial documentary wouldn't leave you smiling.

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