Love is blind, and so too is Linda Pugach, one of the loony-tuners in the somewhat sickening, mildly gonzo documentary “Crazy Love.” In 1959, when she was 22, and known as Linda Riss, Mrs. Pugach opened the door of her Bronx apartment to a thug who claimed to have an engagement present for her and instead threw liquid lye in her face. Screaming tabloid headlines ensued, along with a sensational trial, a suicide attempt, an insanity diagnosis and finally the conviction of a jilted boyfriend, Burton Pugach, a Bronx lawyer turned Bellevue-certified nut job, who after the assault promised to buy Ms. Riss a seeing-eye dog for Christmas. Fifteen years later they were married. Crazy love? Try demented.
Directed by Dan Klores, “Crazy Love” takes a mildly hyperventilated approach to its subject; there’s a hint of tabloid sensationalism, a splash of kitsch sentimentalism. It moves fast, if predictably so, with the usual mash-up of talking-head testimonials (family, friends, Jimmy Breslin), faded family photographs, blurred home movies and generic stock footage meant to evoke specific times and places. An opening quotation from Jacques Lacan makes you think you’re headed for deep waters, when all that’s in store is a frolic in the shallows. The overall vibe is morbidly entertaining, though something of a downer, partly because it’s unclear if Mr. and Mrs. Pugach know that they are such sick puppies, partly because it’s unclear if Mr. Klores cares that they are.
In some respects “Crazy Love” belongs to that class of documentaries that might be called the family freak show. (Think of “Capturing the Friedmans.”) But it also belongs to the more familiar category of the misery documentary, those nonfiction works that poke into the ghastliness of other people’s lives like a finger rummaging inside a wound. Misery documentaries exist because sometimes other people’s pain is deemed newsworthy and because sometimes the people who make them sincerely want to inspire change. Mostly, though, they exist because watching other people suffer has always been a favorite human pastime. In ancient Rome spectators flocked to the Colosseum to watch the bloodletting; now we watch it on screen.
Mr. Pugach’s creepy comment about his wife brings home just how thoroughly unfunny and awful his obsession was. I wish there were something half as disturbing and sinister about “Crazy Love,” which far too readily tends to play this pathetic story for laughs.