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‘Crazy Love’: a doc that’s horrific and funny

Tells a rich story of obsessive love that leads to violence and marriage. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Crazy Love” is a documentary about a man who was so obsessively possessive of his ex-girlfriend that he lied to her about divorcing his wife, paid guys to beat her up so she’d feel frightened enough to run back to him, and, most shockingly of all, hired a thug to throw lye in her face, leaving her blind and disfigured at 22.

And it’s funny!

That’s one of the most astounding elements of “Crazy Love” — the way in which director Dan Klores takes a horrific tale, which provided juicy fodder for the New York tabloids nearly 50 years ago, and consistently finds its innate humor.

It helps a great deal that Burton Pugach and Linda Riss, now 80 and 70 years old respectively, are a longtime husband and wife who revel in the attention their unbelievable relationship has drawn. Yes, they got married after everything that transpired between them. That’s only part of the exquisite weirdness.

These two are great storytellers with a great story to tell — he with his goatee and gut, she with her frosted gold wig that matches her lipstick that matches her fingernails, an ultra-slim cigarette perpetually protruding between them. Linda also wears a pair of oversized, butterfly-shaped shades to hide her eyes, but her eyebrows jump behind them as she recounts the extraordinary events that have occurred over the past half century. She’s as enthralled in her soap opera of a life as we are.

Burt and Linda’s friends and relatives also happen to be total characters, including the aging former secretary who was hot-to-trot in her day, with whom Burt also had an extramarital fling, and Sheila Hoffman, Linda’s kind cousin who’s pure, old-school Brooklyn. (“Lawyer” is pronounced “LOY-ah,” for example.)

Klores, a veteran New York publicist-turned-filmmaker who remembered the case from his childhood, cleverly combines photographs, footage and fitting music (for example, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me”). And while he keeps things moving in lively fashion, the commentary can get a little repetitive. She was beautiful; he was no great shakes in the looks department. She was impressed with his money and status; he was completely in love. We get that.

Burt first sees Linda in the fall of 1957 at a park in the Bronx. He’s instantly smitten, and, as a successful lawyer, he can afford to wine and dine her. She’s overwhelmed by his doting, which turns into stalking: He drives her to work, comes back at noon to take her to lunch, comes back again at the end of the day to drive her home, then takes her out for the evening.

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But then Linda finds out Burt is married with a daughter and tries, one of many times, to leave him. Among the several bleak asides to her tale, she meets a handsome young man in Florida named Larry Schwartz and gets engaged to him; Burt, in his irrational and violent jealousy, eventually orders the lye attack. To this day Linda wonders what might have been with Larry.

Instead, she ends up marrying Burt, of all people, who proposes to her on local TV news in 1974 after spending 14 years in prison for his role in Linda’s maiming. Holding hands, they go on Mike Douglas, Geraldo, Sally Jessy. The freak-show aspect of their relationship is irresistible.

But as Burt and Linda tell their story for us, with help from the people who know them best (as well as journalists like Jimmy Breslin), there’s a lot to chew on. It’s funny and sad, sweet and scary and, yes, often just downright creepy. But there’s more to it than that.

Klores, a master of spin, doesn’t try to sway our opinion about Burt and Linda in any direction. He actually has enough faith in us as an audience to decide for ourselves whether these people are crazy for staying together after all that’s happened.