In “Manhattan,” Woody Allen’s New York is a world filled with artists, poets, musicians, writers, intellectuals and psychoanalyst. It’s an oasis of art galleries, museums, books and neurosis. Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” fills the air as Gordon Willis’ superb black and white photography paints a majestic world of urban beauty. Filmed in Cinemascope, the black and white images instill a sense of character with every image we see. The city itself is the main character in this film with everyone else in a supporting role. John Baxter in his excellent biography on Woody states accurately, “While the opening montage recalls the unblinking succession of images with which Antonioni closed L’Eclisse in 1962, Allen’s use of the city as a character exactly parallel’s Fellini’s treatment of Rome in La Dolce Vita.” Baxter also notes other similarities including the ending “in which Marcello Mastroianni tries to talk to the girl on the beach, only to find they can’t communicate.” This easily parallels Isaac’s attempt to mend his relationship with Tracy just as she is leaving for London.
It’s one of Woody’s best written scripts, co-written by Marshall Brinkman, this was the third film they wrote together and the last time until they made “Manhattan Murder Mystery” in 1993. After “Interiors,” Woody promised his backers he would make a funny film…like his earlier works. “Manhattan” is not quite that, it’s more a comedy/drama than a flat out comedy like “Bananas” or “Sleeper.” This is a film about relationships, broken relationships, lost relationships. The film centers on Isaac Davis (Wood Allen), a 43 year old TV writer attempting to write his first serious novel. Isaac is having an affair with a seventeen year old high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), a college professor, though married to Emily, is having an affair with Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) a neurotic writer who is currently reviewing Tolstoy for an intelligencia magazine as well as writing novelizations of movies on the side. The tale takes a turn when Yale decides to break off his affair with Mary in hopes of saving his marriage. Isaac, with Yale’s knowledge, begins dating Mary, discarding the impressionable young Tracy who is heartbroken. A subplot involves Isaac’s problems with his caustic ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) who left him for a woman, taking their son, and is now writing her own book, “Marriage, Divorce and Selfhood,” a tell all about their life which Isaac fears will expose his sexual idiosyncrasies, a fear she does nothing to deny. A final twist occurs when Yale realizes he wants Mary back, abandoning his wife. Isaac, now alone tries in vain to win back Tracy who is leaving for London that same day.
I had not seen “Manhattan” in many years until I watched it again recently, yet I always considered it one of my favorite Woody Allen films. Other favorites, I have always watched over and over again, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Broadway Danny Rose” to name a few, yet I always skipped over this one. A fear began to build up that maybe, just maybe, the film could not live up to my memories, so I continued not watch it preferring to savor those precious memories and not be disappointed. Well, my fears were happily unjustified, “Manhattan” is an exceptionally multifaceted film, smoothly transitioning between comedy, romance and drama like an exceptional multi course meal at an expensive restaurant topped off with a fine wine and, of course, with Gershwin in the background.
Isaac is surrounded by people with broken relationships, his ex-wife Jill, Yale his best friend whose having an affair with Mary who had split up with her best sexual partner ever, Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit appearance. With Tracy, Isaac has a chance at true love, if it is even possible between a 43 year old man and a 17 year old girl. Isaac is the only character, other than the still evolving Tracy, in the film who believes in monogamy which he expresses when he tells Yale, “I believe people should mate for life, like pigeons and Catholics.” Tracy cares for Isaac deeply, and though she is younger than everyone else she possesses an innocent kind of maturity, and maturity of any kind is something Isaac lacks. His fatal flaw was not seeing Tracy as special or treating their relationship seriously which comes back to haunt him later when he finally realizes that despite their age difference, he might have blown he one chance at true love.
The film’s real love story, the true romance though is the one between Woody and his town, Manhattan. The opening montage of black and white shots are love letters to the one consistent lover in his life photographed on a canvas so lustrous as to make the entire borough look like one of the great wonders of the world. The entire film is one big love affair with the characters visiting one iconic New York location after another; row boating in Central Park, shopping at Zabar’s, the Guggenheim Museum, the 59th Street Bridge and on and on all to the melodic beauty of Gershwin’s “But Not For Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
The cast consist of one fine performance after another by Michael Murphy, Meryl Streep and Anne Byrne. Highlights though belong to Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway both who give inspired performances. A word about Woody, he is always accused of playing the same character and to an extent that is true, the mannerisms and nerdiness are always there. However, in the final scene of the film between Woody and Hemingway there is a underlying depth to his character, a restrained realization; he knows he missed his opportunity at true love yet he is desperately, selfishly, attempts to hold on to a time that has passed. Woody does this without any overly histrionic behavior, it low key and a thing of beauty.