New Yorker Isaac (Woody Allen) is a writer for a television comedy show, but he dreams of penning the great American novel, and has had serious fiction published before, just nothing on the scale he wishes for. Twice-divorced, he is currently in a casual relationship with seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), their age difference (he is forty-two) preventing him from taking her as seriously as she would like him to. His best friend is Yale (Michael Murphy), who is married but as he confides in Isaac after they meet for dinner one evening, he has met someone else...
For many, Manhattan was the greatest film Woody Allen ever made, but oddly enough he didn't feel that way himself, berating it as an artistic failure and claiming if it made just one more person miserable, then he would be more than satisfied. Quite what he had in mind and how it deviated from what ended up on the screen is not too clear, and from some angles it looked to be the most stereotypical Allen movie with its mixture of the gags of his previous movies and the more neurotic, grown up concerns of the path his work was taking for the rest of his career (well, mostly). He already had Interiors under his belt, and Annie Hall had been a big success, so for some this was a synthesis of them both.
Except that when he was serious, he hadn't been half as entertaining as he had when trying to be funny, and with Manhattan his next movie after his Oscar winner it could be he felt pressure that he didn't believe he had lived up to here. Yet there were abundant laugh out loud moments even if at times Allen came across as trying to amuse nobody but himself, thereby fitting this neatly into one of his accustomed comedies, so it was a surprise to many that underneath his near-caricatures of the people we expect to meet in that area of New York even if we've never set foot in the place was a genuine truth about love, and that it came after Allen dismissed it for the previous ninety minutes as unattainable.
Isaac's problem is that he thinks he's past it when it comes to relationships, too jaded and that at this stage in life intellectual cynicism provides him with the protection he needs against getting emotionally hurt yet again. Of course, that's no guarantee, and while it makes him act badly towards the naive but goodhearted Tracy (Hemingway was no actress at this point, but her innocence works wonders for what verges on a symbolic role), it also leads him into situations he'd rather not be in, whether they be humorous for us or not. One humorous aspect is that his second wife (Meryl Streep) is writing a book about their failed marriage which comically embarrasses him, but more seriously is when he gets involved with Yale's mistress, Mary (Diane Keaton) and reluctantly falls for her.
Allen created a distance between the audience and his characters, as if to observe them all the better, so we can see how foolish they are being and how they are doomed to live a life of these brittle connections, chuckling at their faults while sympathising that nobody's perfect. It helped that he utilised Gordon Willis's impeccably crisp black and white cinematography to create a movie movie mood - never has the city looked quite as alluring - and extracts from George Gershwin on the soundtrack for a romantic mood he lampoons but at the same time admits would be ideal to have faith in. Sure, there were jokes such as the ex-husband Mary claims "opened her up sexually" being played by Wallace Shawn, or the silent film-esque interludes such as Isaac's negotiating with his young son to win his affection from his ex, but it was that ending that marked Manhattan out. Isaac's realisation, perhaps too late, that it was something as unironic and precious as true love which could restore him and that comforting final line, were incredibly sweet and moving - after all that, they really meant something.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.
Has my vote for all-time greatest opening voice-over. Clearly Mr. Allen is the worst judge of his own material. While Interiors was not a complete disaster, it has long been forgotten whilst Manhattan endures as a masterpiece.
7 Jun 2012
I love the way he goes from trying to be all intellectual with that opening narration and ends up with "Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat." It's a film full of brilliance, both tender and funny, so as you say it's a shame Woody couldn't appreciate it as others did - it was his biggest self-directed success at the box office to that date.