Pros: great cinematography, performances, ethical issues and use of New York as a character
Cons: black and white, static camera work, talky, basically for Allen fans not Nascar people
Conventional wisdom has it that Manhattan (1979) is Woody Allen's ode to New York, though some think it's just a slick attempt to reprise the Oscar he got for Annie Hall (1977). After re-renting this film, I have a theory of my own - one as bizarre as the face of Batboy on all those tabloid mags sitting near the register at a Wynn Dixie near you.
Manhattan is Woody Allen's secret confession - in disguise.
Imagine what would happen if O.J. Simpson starred in a film about a former jock who murders his ex-wife. Imagine Mark Fuhrman writing a book about a cop who plants evidence at crime scenes. (You don't have to; he was writing it - on the eve of the O.J. trial).
A lot is said about Allen's 1992 film, Husbands and Wives, and how it mirrored Allen's personal scandal, involving the breakup of his marriage to Mia Farrow. Farrow had discovered Allen's secret love affair with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Husbands and Wives was about the breakup of a fictional couple, portrayed by Allen and Farrow, with Allen falling for one of his college students. A lot is also said about Allen's 1997 film, Deconstructing Harry, in which he seems to own up to the trainwreck that became his personal life.
Even if they claim an exclusive metaphorical confession, (sublimated just enough to make fiction of reality), these films have been scooped. Released in 1979, Allen uses Manhattan to show his cards 13 years before his infamous Soon-Yi scandal. It's like something out of Basic Instinct.
Don't be fooled: Manhattan is a moral pretzel disguised as farce. Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is a TV writer who loathes the sitcoms that pay him handsomely to anaesthetize couch potatoes. Angry that his ex-wife is writing a tell-all book about their break-up (something that would occur in 1992 when Mia Farrow went public) - and maybe angry that she left him for another woman - Isaac is writing a book of his own. It's a book about New York as a metaphor for moral decay. While writing it, however, Isaac is tempted to cheat on his 17-year-old lover, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). The object of his newfound affections is Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a woman his age who is a total mess (not unlike Mia Farrow) and who contradicts him at will. His ethical concern is not whether it's more unethical to cheat on a minor than to sleep with one. It's whether to do such cheating behind the back of his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), who is sleeping with Mary Wilkie behind the back of his own wife, Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman).
Say what you want about Allen and his screwed-up choices, the man is still an amazing talent. Shot completely in black and white, with daring camera work and awesome composition, Manhattan turns New York City into a walk-on character (or maybe the Grand Diva, herself) while exploring the mine-laden world of relationships and the kinds of me-generation ethics that would become fodder for countless episodes of Seinfeld (a sitcom Allen could, no doubt, have written - and hated - all at the same time).
Manhattan marks a decisive point in Allen's transformation into America's version of Ingmar Bergman. He uses voiceover, not to tell us things we could have gotten from action and dialogue, but to do three things at once. We see New York, in all its variety. We hear Allen narrate the opening of the novel he's writing. We also hear Allen sculpting the persona, motives and issues of a character we are just beginning to meet.
And then he hits us with the music: George Gershwyn's Rhapsody in Blue, a piece that musically narrates the character and story arc of an immigrant's coming-of-age in New York City. Gershwyn's music sets a tone that presents New York as a bustling metropolis - at first intimidating to the newly-arrived - full of havoc and mayhem - but eventually "home" to those willing to succumb to the joys of its vast, diverse pleasures.
One wonders whether Allen isn't also suggesting that life, like the city of New York, is impossibly complicated. To newcomers, it's too much to take. But to those who learn to navigate the maze, there's no going back. Smalltown, USA - with its easy-to-understand morality - eventually becomes too small, and too boring, for restless hearts.
Then again, as in Mike Nichols' Closer, it's possible to be too smart for your own good.
To see what Allen paints in black and white, you'd never suspect he was the same writer/director who shot Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play it Again, Sam (1972) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). Some of these shots belong in a museum or a gallery. If they were food, I'd order seconds. As a result, this film helps transform Allen from America's favorite nebbish to a director whose 1977 Oscar for Annie Hall could not be dismissed as a fluke.
The chemistry between Allen and Keaton is, by this point, nothing new. What really surprised me were two characters with smaller, but important, roles. The first is Yale, Isaac's best friend, the man whom Isaac fears betraying by sleeping with Mary, the woman Yale is sleeping with, behind his wife's back. Though Yale is taller, and possibly younger, he is a nuanced version of Allen - what Allen would be if there were "more" of him - on every level. Yale is taller (and more physical), bespectacled, equally animated and ironic, and conflicted about what he's doing - though not enough to stop.
In establishing this relationship between Isaac (as Allen) and Yale (as Allen's fantasy wish fulfillment) - Woody Allen does something Charlie Kauffman would do ten years after Allen's famous sex scandal. Not only does Allen write himself into the film, but he doubles himself (the way Kauffman would do by inventing a fictitious brother). Both men have a moral dilemma (Little Allen is sleeping with a minor; Big Allen is committing adultery). Both men advise the other to stop. Both men make efforts to drive away the objects of temptation - but struggle with the tension between what feels right and what feels good.
I enjoyed Allen's orchestration of characters, especially in casting the women between whom he'd have to choose. It's a choice not unlike the one in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) - where a woman who feels unloved (and who comes to the movies as an escape) eventually has to choose between the hero of her favorite film (who walks out of the movie, just to be with her) - and the real-life actor who plays the part. In Purple Rose of Cairo, it's a choice between our dreams and reality. In Manhattan, it's a choice between a relationship society deems inappropriate (but works) and one more to society's liking (which may or may not pan out in the end).
As someone once said, "The heart wants what the heart wants." On the other hand, hearts are made to be governed - or at least counter-balanced - by the head, which is less interested in the romantic side of happiness than in safety and security. The head doesn't always make you happy, though it does have a tendency to keep you out of trouble.
It's in his casting of Mariel Hemingway that Allen most surprises us. I didn't think I'd ever see a Hemingway who could act. The bulk of Mariel's roles (outside of films like this one) have involved direct-to-video sex-pulp-thrillers. Her work here is so good, she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Cast in the Lolita role, Hemingway doesn't pander. She plays the part as sometimes sweet, sometimes daffy, and still sensitive enough for us to see her, not as a bimbo or eye candy, but as a person whose hopes, acceptance and disappointments are every bit as moving as her ability to live and learn.
Ironically, though Allen's recurring persona, as America's ultimate nebbish, often involves a distancing between himself and moral judgment - Allen's universe (at least the one in his films) is not without an all-seeing eye of its own. Though his 1989 film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, goes out of its way to deny the existence of justice (as a retort to Dostoevsky's affirmation of both morality and justice) - even Allen finds it hard to write outside a framework in which consequences and karma become inevitable.
I liked this film. Admittedly, it's not for everyone. It's talky, philosophical, and dependent upon your taste for Woody Allen. Yet, it gives us characters that are well-crafted and a story that involves moral choice - something you'd never expect from a guy like Woody Allen. And ironically, while pretending not to care, Allen continues to suggest he's whistling past the graveyard - even if the tune is Highway to Hell.