05 May, 2009

Movie Review: Manhattan (1979) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

Woody Allen considered Manhattan to be a colossal failure when he completed it, offering to do another film free of charge for the studio as an act of penance, and years later, after the film proved to be one of his most successful and enduring films, he still considered the film to be the biggest deception he ever got away with, a disastrously flawed film and his least favorite of all of them.

Manhattan is the highest ranking of eight Allen films on the TSPDT? list, falling quite high at #114. It was a phenomenal box office success, and it was nominated for two Academy Awards. I have to admit, though, I agree with Woody Allen.

What have I taken away from this film? Not very much. A few laughs, maybe. Some gorgeous black and white cinematography shot on location in New York City, and an interesting setup involving pretentious Manhattanites and their overlapping, forever in flux affairs. By the end, I guess, it makes a statement on checking our own egos, our hyperbolic criticisms of ourselves and others, our swollen pretentious, and our certainty in our own maturity and adulthood at the door. As fortysomething Isaac (Allen) frantically makes his way across town to win back the high school girl (Mariel Hemingway) he's recently dismissed as being too young, too naive, and too immature for love, we're supposed to realize that she--unlike other lover Mary (Diane Keaton) with her thousand insecure opinions and neurotic best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) with his mid-life crisis and flighty contradictions--may be the most grown up and least tainted of all of them, with her decent grasp on reality and her calm acceptance of all people and their flaws.

We're supposed to believe that and I guess it's a nice message, but it's more than a little creepy coming from a writer-director with his sexual background, a biased message endorsing the adoration of youth, a naive idea dripping with nostalgia and a bit of sexual perversion. (Personally, I didn't like hearing about what a powerful beast Allen is in bed.)

Not to mention the stilted acting that never quite flows smoothly. Hemingway, who received an Oscar nomination, is perhaps the best at playing the sanest character, but Murphy and Keaton both seem contrived, and Allen seems to be having too much fun reading his own witty script.

And there's also the halting direction and unenthusiastic pacing. And a script that isn't nearly as funny or crisp as it thinks it is, with a distracting subplot involving Meryl Streep as a lesbian ex-lover penning an implausible bestseller.

All in all, I can't see anything that's genuinely amazing about this film. It left a sour aftertaste in my mouth, and it quickly slipped from my memory.

Manhattan Murder Mystery, on the other hand, is hysterical, clever, and rich. Penned by Manhattan writers Allen and Marshall Brickman and again starring Allen and Diane Keaton, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a Hitchcockian satire following the tepid lives of four would-be mystery writers as they attempt to one-up each other in solving the most implausible crime that could ever enter their mundane lives.

When energetic Mrs. House (Lynn Cohen) dies suddenly of a heart attack, Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) can't bring herself to understand what the paramedic plainly describes. Her chatty, older neighbor, whom she had just met the night before, had never mentioned a heart condition. Though she confesses to loving rich, creamy, French desserts and though the workout routine she does on her new treadmill is perhaps too exhausting for a woman her age, Carol can't fathom that a woman so alive one day can be carried out in a covered stretcher the next. What begins as a denial of life's impermanence escalates into suspicion. Why does fuzzy Mr. House with his soothing baritone and his pedantic stamp collection seem so accepting of his wife's death, so nonchalant about the loss? Does he just have a better understanding of mortality, or could he have murdered the wife he seemed to cherish, have force-fed her cholesterol packed mousse or strapped her wrists to the treadmill in order to induce what doctors would dismiss as natural?

And why is he taking the elevator downstairs at three in the morning?

What's fueling the paranoia is her stir-crazy boredom. She's middle aged and essentially unemployed, surrounded by artists but with no artistic output of her own, dreaming of opening a restaurant but never taking the steps to fulfill that dream. The murder is her chance to get back into the world and to express her imagination.

Larry Lipton (Allen), meanwhile, is a successful book editor, more accustomed to striking out excessive fancies and implausible bouts of wild, melodramatic imagination. He tries to bring his wife back down to earth. The doctor said she had a heart attack. The old woman loved heavy whipping cream. Big, old, harmless Mr. House collects canceled postage, for godsakes.

With her husband the critical voice of boring reason, Carol unites with old friend Ted (Alan Alda), a playwright and theater director who's able to come up with motivations on the spot, and able to constantly twist and change them as needed to fit the ultimate story. The murder mystery is a fun game for him, not nearly as serious as it is for Carol except that it allows him a chance to spend quality time with her, his unrequited, unattainable love of many years.

And so the murder mystery becomes a love triangle, with Larry suddenly realizing that he'll have to play along and become a gumshoe in order to keep up with Ted and save his probably deluded wife as she further embroils herself in breaking into apartments, hiding under beds, and making impostor phone calls to seedy hotels.

One of the funniest scenes (though I won't mention the funniest one, which had me cracking up loudly in an empty room) happens when the three come together with Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston), one of Larry's controversial, bestselling authors. It's a scene of artistic competitiveness, all of them racing to solve the mystery while veiling hostilities and ulterior motives.

"Well, basically, he got away with the perfect murder. It's as simple as that," newcomer Marcia matter-of-factly reveals with an arrogant amount of boredom to the three stumped sleuths who have struggled so hard to fit together the ridiculous, trivial jigsaw pieces. "And when I get back from the loo, I'll tell you how to catch him."

Ted is mesmerized. The sexy provocateur has pieced together the perfect, surprising plot. Larry is impressed by her cockiness, but overwhelmed by the ridiculous revelation. Carol, meanwhile, is just pissed. Not only has this femme fatale sauntered into the scene in the last act and solved her mystery, but she's also stolen the center stage as well as the two male leads--Ted, who's drooling all over her, and Larry, who seems to have just a little too much history with his client. You're jealous of me liking her, that's untrue but fine, Larry explains to his wife, but why are you jealous of Ted liking her unless you want Ted to like you?

What hangs in the balance of this mystery isn't so much life and death and future crimes as egos, relationships, and escape from the doldrums of middle age. The murder mystery, with its absurd twists and riotously silly climax, is just a red herring.

d: Woody Allen w: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
(Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway)
TSPDT? #114

Manhattan Murder Mystery
d: Woody Allen w: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
(Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston)

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