Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Day Ninety-Five: Manhattan

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #224
Year: 1979
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton broke up in 1971, but that didn't stop Allen from trying to keep the flame alight in the context of his films. His two most famous pictures, 1977's Annie Hall and 1979's Manhattan, both cast the two former lovers as current lovers. Fortunately for Allen, their real-life chemistry translated incredibly well to the screen, and he was successful in using their relationship to write some of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. Manhattan follows a simple premise – a married man and a divorced man in a relationship are both in love with the same "other woman" – but is carried to greatness by Allen's hilarious script and trademark neurotic performance. Manhattan, with its great supporting cast consisting of Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep and Anne Byrne, was Woody Allen's most complete film at the time of its release, and has arguably stood the test of time to remain his best.

As with so many movies named for their setting, Manhattan is perhaps less about the specific people involved in the story and more about the city it's set in, and the way that lives can intersect in such interesting ways even when faced with the improbability inherent in living in such an immense place. In the opening scene, gorgeous shots of New York are narrated by Allen's character talking into a tape recorder to try to decide how to start Chapter One of his book. He changes his mind about what he wants to write every few seconds, but one line is never irreparably changed: "He adored New York City." Indeed, this scene, which tells so little about the specific interactions that are to come, says everything one needs to know about the theme of the film. It is Woody Allen's love letter to Manhattan itself, not to Diane Keaton. The romantic comedy genre is the framework he chose to put it in, but that's secondary. Manhattan is really about Manhattan.

Since Manhattan is a Woody Allen movie, there is a certain amount of highbrow writing to be expected. It is executed deftly and even pokes fun at itself in the form of Diane Keaton's intellectual, pretentious character early in the film – who pronounces "Van Gogh" as "Van Goch," thinks Ingmar Bergman is too hung up on Kierkegaard, and only enjoyed one piece in the entire Museum of Modern Art's lower floor. By the end of the film, every character, even those engaged in adultery and flying across the ocean without their lovers, is ultimately likable. That's one of Allen's victories with Manhattan. He creates a cast of characters with problems average people should have no sympathy for and makes them all endearing. As Allen's seventeen-year old girlfriend tells him that she's flying to London for the summer, he elects, as he always had, to stay behind. It's the last scene, and the final shot is on his smirking face. After all, if he didn't stay in Manhattan, what would this film's point really be?

The Good: The script, as with most Woody Allen films.

The Bad: Meryl Streep gets less than five minutes of screen time! She could have really shined here, and it's a shame she didn't have a bigger part.

The Skinny: Deserves its place.

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