WHEN a new Woody Allen movie comes out, the first thing people want to know is: Will this one make us laugh? It's a natural question because, while Mr. Allen made his reputation as a comedy filmmaker, he also has a philosophical streak running through him. You might call this his Ingmar Bergman streak, since he's heavily influenced by Bergman, and it often tends toward the gloomy side. His work runs from farces like ``Sleeper'' and ``Take the Money and Run'' to somber dramas like ``September'' and ``Another Woman.''
At his very best - in ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' for instance - Allen manages to combine both sides of his personality into a single excellent movie. That's what he aims for in ``Crimes and Misdemeanors,'' his new picture. The attempt doesn't quite work; there are lots of lumpy and unsatisfying moments. But it's such an odd and ambitious film that it's always absorbing to watch, and you never know what's going to happen next. One moment, it's a romantic comedy in the ``Annie Hall'' mode. The next, it's threatening to become Woody Allen's version of ``Fatal Attraction.''
The movie has two main storylines. One features Allen himself as a wistful comic character: a second-rate filmmaker who falls in love with an attractive producer, only to face competition from his brother-in-law, a slick TV director. Mia Farrow and Alan Alda play the love interest and the rival, respectively.
The other, more involving story is about a physician (Martin Landau) who's going through a major crisis in his life. Although he's been happily married for years, he's fallen into an affair with another woman (Anjelica Huston) who's now threatening to tell his wife. The doctor is an educated, successful man, but in his desperation to find a way out of this predicament, he turns to his brother - a thug who suggests murdering the woman before she can blow the whistle and undermine the seeming stability of his household.
This may sound melodramatic, and at times, that's exactly what the movie is. It also does a weak job of integrating this plotline with the comic one about the lovelorn filmmaker.
WHAT makes the picture fascinating are its philosophical undercurrents. ``Crimes and Misdemeanors'' is no mere entertainment; it's an exploration of moral and even spiritual issues. The ability to see clearly is a key metaphor in the story of the doctor, an ophthalmologist who treats other people's eyes while wondering (prodded by his conscience) if the eyes of God might be on his criminal behavior. Another key character is a deeply religious rabbi who keeps his faith and optimism even though he's going blind. Allen carries the metaphor of ``vision'' into the very fabric of the movie, until even a camera movement to the headlights of a car reinforces our awareness that enlightenment - as a literal circumstance, a symbolic process, and a spiritual necessity - is the quality he's seeking to explore.
What conclusions does Allen reach as his tale comes to a close? I'm sorry to report that they're surprisingly pessimistic, even cynical in their views of guilt, innocence, and justice. (There's that Ingmar Bergman streak again.) And yet, in a last scene with faint echoes of ``Hannah and Her Sisters,'' the filmmaker does leave some hope for the future - if not the future of these characters, at least that of their children and later generations. In the end, ``Crimes and Misdemeanors'' isn't exactly a comedy or a tragedy, and it certainly isn't a wholehearted success. But it has a lot of interesting things on its mind, and its ability to mingle all sorts of ideas and attitudes - an important ability in our increasingly crowded and complex age - is as stimulating as it is provocative.