February 20, 2006
After the phenomenal success of Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen confounded the expectations of his critics and fans with Interiors (1978), which saw him doing his best Ingmar Bergman impression. It was his first dramatic film and while critical reaction was mostly positive, it hardly set the box office on fire. With Manhattan (1979), Allen returned to familiar material – the witty romantic comedy – with what many consider his masterpiece but a film that he famously felt was so bad that he offered to make another one for the studio for free if they agreed to not release it. Thankfully, they didn’t listen to him and the end result is one of the greatest cinematic love letters to New York City every committed to film while also taking an entertaining and insightful look at the love lives of a handful of its inhabitants.
Allen establishes his ambitious intentions right from the start with a grandiose montage of the city scored to George Gershwin and photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis. This is the Big Apple as seen through Allen’s eyes as he presents rarefied social strata of well-educated, neurotic people entangled in messy relationships with each other. Still stinging from a bitter divorce, Isaac Davis (Allen) is now dating Tracy (Hemingway), a 17-year-old girl (“I’m dating a girl who does homework.”). His best friend Yale (Murphy) is having an affair with a journalist named Mary (Keaton).
Isaac and Yale’s lives are a mess with the former writing for a television show he loathes and the latter trying to finish a book and start up a magazine. The last thing they need is to complicate their romantic lives. Isaac realizes that Tracy is too young for him (“You should think of me as a detour on the highway of life.”) and gets involved with Mary after Yale introduces them. At first, Isaac and Mary can’t stand each other, arguing over an art exhibit and several artists she feels overrated but he thinks are great, however, he likes her unflinching honesty and she’s attracted to his sense of humor.
Woody Allen and Diane Keaton continue their undeniable on-screen chemistry playing so well off each other. She is allowed to tone down the more exaggerated comedic gestures she used in Annie Hall to create a more nuanced character in Manhattan. Mary is torn between her love for Yale, even though she knows its wrong and her attraction to Isaac. Allen is more than a neurotic joke machine as Isaac wrestles with his own moral dilemmas – his love for Tracy, even though he knows she’s too young for him, and his attraction to Mary who is much more compatible.
While Manhattan features an abundance of Allen’s funny one-liners, the screenplay he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman tempers it somewhat with the characters’ messy personal lives, like the resentment Isaac feels towards his ex-wife (Streep) for leaving him for another woman, or Yale cheating on his perfectly lovely wife (Byrne) with Mary. Allen expertly shifts gears from comedy to drama from scene to scene and sometimes even within the same scene.
Allen takes us through a guided tour through the city with key scenes taking place at famous establishments, like Elaine’s and the Russian tearoom, or tourist spots like the Hayden Planetarium, in such a way that New York becomes a character unto itself. It also doesn’t hurt that Willis’ gorgeously textured black and white cinematography makes everything look so good. Sadly, several of the places the characters frequent no longer exist making Manhattan a historical document of sorts. Allen’s film is arguably the best representation of his worldview: highly educated people with very little common sense when it comes to their personal lives, making bad decisions even when they realize it. But like the rest of us, they keep on trying, hoping that the next relationship is the one.
The Blu-Ray presentation of Manhattan is the best Allen’s film has ever looked and sounded, showing off Willis’ incredible cinematography. This is definitely worth upgrading if you own the DVD.
In keeping with Allen’s wishes, there are no extras on this disc except for the requisite theatrical trailer.