Billed as an “urban fairytale”, Harlem Aria follows developmentally disabled orphan Anton as he chafes under the attentions of his doting aunt, the surrounding poverty of Harlem, and dreariness of his dead-end job at a laundry. Fascinated by the spectacle and richness of opera, Anton collects records and memorabilia as an escape. The owner of the laundry notices and exploits Anton, and a sinister drug dealer buys him an elegant tuxedo in exchange for unspecified future services. When his aunt finds out, she puts the kibosh on the opera foolishness. Anton packs his meager savings and a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and runs away from home.
The audience is meant to consider the image of ungainly Anton waddling the streets of New York City incongruously clad in his penguin suit funny, but it isn’t long before the denizens of the streets recognize his vulnerability as well. He quickly falls into the clutches of an especially unctuous street hustler, who at first is content to just take Anton’s cash. (And, playing to stereotypes, provoke him into running around hooting wildly.) But when Anton tries singing opera in Washington Square Park (without any sort of voice training, mind you… he just opens his mouth and an obviously phony operatic voice comes out) the hustler knows a meal ticket when he sees one. The piano-playing busker they team up with seems content to be party to the exploitation of Anton. Hijinks ensue, culminating in an uncomfortable scene of sexual teasing in which Anton (portrayed as a sexual innocent, despite his high functioning) is manipulated into licking ice cream off the chest of a hooker.
Everyone gets busted and Anton lands back at home with his aunt. For a final act, the two hustlers playfully kidnap Anton and thrust him onto the stage of an opera, with no preparation, to fulfill his dream. Anton’s antics turn the drama into a farce. If “cripsploitation” was a recognized genre, this movie would surely be in it.