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MOVIE REVIEW

A mad, sad tale lives up to its title in 'Crazy Love'

Every neighborhood has its freak-show married couple -- the two who call each other names at parties, break things, toss their emotional trash all over the lawn. You wince and look away, maybe wondering how two people who hate each other so much can need each other so much. At the same time, part of you is grateful for the entertainment.

"Crazy Love" more or less nominates Burt and Linda Pugach as New York City's most dysfunctional couple of all time, which is astounding when you consider the competition. But the documentary backs it up. Directors Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens (the latter officially credited as "co-director," whatever that means) trace the mad, sad tale of Burt and Linda from humble Bronx weirdness through several explosions of tabloid infamy all the way to today, when they appear to be just another sweet elderly couple at the deli.

Don't be fooled. How many sweet old men at the deli once hired goons to blind their girlfriends with lye, served jail time, then married them when they got out?

When he spied the 18-year-old Linda Riss at the beach in 1957, Pugach, then 30, had to have her. An ambulance chaser with a brisk law practice, Pugach liked to live large. The naive Linda was dazzled. So what if he looked like movie nerd Arnold Stang ? "He owned a nightclub. He was a lawyer. He had a plane," recalls one of her friends. What wasn't to like?

The fact that he was already married, for one thing. Pathological jealousy, for another. When Linda dumped him after learning of his wife, Burt lay on the floor and wailed like a 2-year-old. Then he grew a scary beard. Then he called Herb and Al . "If I can't have her, no one can," he said -- the eternal cry of the spurned loser time-bomb.

"Crazy Love" doesn't downplay the awfulness of what happened , but it also knows a good media circus when it sees one. Burt acted as his own lawyer, turned the trial into a carnival, was convicted, and got sent to Attica, where he was such a successful jailhouse lawyer for other prisoners he was put in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile Linda traveled to Europe and back, growing steadily lonelier with the years. When Burt was paroled in 1974, he used a TV interview to publicly propose to her; eventually she said yes. The tabloids swooped in once more.

There the two are in headlines and on magazine covers; there they are on "The Mike Douglas Show " and "Geraldo ." Everyone wants to know one thing: Why? Why would Linda Riss take back the person who maimed her, the man People magazine called "America's Most Horrible Husband"? Why would she stick by him in 1996, when he cheated on her with a younger woman and they wound up on the front page of the New York Post all over again?

It's a mystery that "Crazy Love" never quite solves, perhaps out of respect for everything Linda has gone through. Klores, whose day job is running a successful PR firm, has emerged over the past few years as a documentarian of a distinctly New York tang. He makes barstool tales, the sort Joseph Mitchell or Damon Runyon might have leaned in to hear. His previous films, "The Boys of Second Street Park " and "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story ," probe the dark, colorful strangeness that can build up in the city's corners before erupting into view.

"Crazy Love" is echt Klores, and he tells it straight and sometimes too expansively. The director can't resist throwing in every last detail -- Burt, in full breakdown, playing the ukulele and singing the pop song "Linda" to his pet iguana -- but can you blame him when the details are that bizarre? We don't really need journalist Jimmy Breslin , hooting with disbelief at the twists the couple's story takes, but he's here anyway, and the movie's more enjoyable for it.

The final scenes with Burt and Linda today are unexpectedly touching. The two bicker like your grandparents, with the same affection but considerably more poison flowing under the bridge. Linda's a taskmaster and a noodge, and when she says, "It's not easy being with me -- I figured this was the best revenge," the laugh sticks in your throat.

She also says, when asked why she went back to Burt, "To him, I was still beautiful." Maybe it is as simple as that. Or maybe that's a classic victim of abuse talking. "Crazy Love" scrapes away the cartoon exterior around this story and peers into the unknowable murk of the human heart.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Crazy Love

Directed by: Dan Klores

Co-directed by: Fisher Stevens

Starring: Burt and Linda Pugach , Jimmy Breslin

At: Kendall Square, West Newton

Running time: 92 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (language, sexual references, mature thematic elements)

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