Woody Allen built his reputation on breezy, unstructured comedies that served as little more than excuses to place his trademarked hyper-neurotic nebbish in a series of incongruous environments ranging from 19th century Russia (Love and Death) to a dystopian future (Sleeper). These early comedies were occasionally screamingly funny (especially Love and Death), but their patchiness and superficiality made it all the more surprising when, in 1977, Allen turned around and delivered Annie Hall – an assured and devastatingly personal romantic drama which showed a nuanced and flawed Woody struggling to navigate the romantic, social and professional pitfalls of his home turf, present day New York City.
The following year, Allen took another step towards a new maturity with Interiors, a muted drama about family dissolution, and then, in 1979, came Manhattan, the film that still stands as perhaps the best fusion of Allen’s desire to entertain and his melancholy sense of the rhythms and complexities of human relationships. He also brings New York City to the forefront, and in so doing he creates what must surely rank as the greatest celebration of the city (or any city, for that matter) in the history of cinema. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the justly celebrated opening sequence: a gorgeous montage of New York vistas backed by the soaring strains of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue,” with Woody in voiceover tentatively dictating the opening chapter of his book (“Chapter One: He adored New York City…”)
The film quickly introduces Isaac Davis (Allen), sitting at a bar on what looks like a double date. The scene unfolds with an almost documentary naturalism, and it is only gradually that the audience realizes that Allen’s date, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), is a seventeen-year old high-school student. This bombshell is casually (a little too casually, perhaps) dumped in the audience’s lap. The overall feeling is a little like being handed a joint at a party by someone whose attitude is “hey, I’m cool enough to handle this, are you?” The film deals with Isaac’s handling of, or failure to handle, this uneasy relationship, as well as his relationship with Mary (Diane Keaton), the mistress of his married friend Yale (Michael Murphy).
A disenchanted television comedy writer, Isaac is besieged by problems and situations that are out of his control. He hates his job; his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is now involved in a lesbian relationship and is writing a tell-all book about their relationship; his apartment is too expensive. It seems as though he almost relishes these romantic entanglements, no matter how messy, as they at least afford him some measure of control over his life, no matter how illusory. In fact, he and Yale are two men living with the consequences of a serious lack of self-control. Yale’s own handling of his relationships with his wife and mistress is just as artless and cowardly as Isaac’s. Afraid to dump Mary, he instead brushes her off by setting her up with Isaac, who in turn is unable to resist falling for her. As Mary, Diane Keaton plays a slightly sour, jaded riff on Annie Hall. The insecurity is still there, but the ditsiness is gone, and her scenes crackle with intelligence and intensity. Hemingway (in an Oscar-nominated performance) somehow manages to be both mature and childlike – it is clear why Allen falls for her (although what she sees in him is up for debate).
As the characters crisscross New York – from art gallery to party to planetarium to art-house cinema – they continue to grow in breadth and complexity rather than simply plodding along a blindingly obvious “character arc,” and Allen’s script (co-written with Marshall Brickman) is pitch-perfect and filled with breathing room. Its one flaw is in making Tracy a little too wise beyond her years. This smacks of self-justification on Allen’s part, and stands in contrast with 1998’s L’Ennui, a film that brilliantly depicted a man whose sexual attraction to a teenage girl is gradually derailed by the fact that they have absolutely nothing to talk about.
As photographed by master cinematographer Gordon Willis, New York looks utterly gorgeous. Many of the compositions are dictated by architecture (apartment interiors, highways, sidewalks), but there are no shots of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building or World Trade Center to reduce the city to a recognizable, cliched image. New York here is filled with possibilities, and it teems with a kind of late-70s intellectual energy that has all but vanished, if it was ever there at all outside Allen’s own work.
Nowadays, Allen is famous for two things: cranking out films the way most people crank out their taxes, and marrying his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (35 years his junior) in 1997. This latter cannot fail to give an additional layer of hindsight creepiness to the Isaac-Tracy plot, and the film’s non-judgmental attitude towards the relationship raises all kinds of questions about the kind of moral universe Allen is trying to depict. It is almost as if he believes that it is OK for a 42-year old man to be dating a 17-year old girl, as long as he agonizes about it briefly once in a while. When he jokes “can you believe it, I’m dating a girl who does homework!” it is hard to tell if he is mocking himself or boasting. The fact remains, however, that Isaac also speaks some of his most tender lines of dialog to Tracy such as "’You’re God’s answer to Job. You would have ended all argument between them. He would have pointed to you and said, ‘I do a lot of terrible things, but I can still make one of these’.” The ick-factor keeps these moments of doe-eyed infatuation from achieving real sweetness, but they do show a remarkable level of self-deprecating honesty on the part of the 42-year-old filmmaker: he is all but presenting himself as the emotional equal of a 17-year old girl.
One of Allen’s greatest skills is his ability to use his detractors’ arguments against himself before they do (what was Deconstructing Harry if not an ingenious exercise in self-flagellation?) The trouble is that many of the criticisms have some truth to them, but by getting there first Allen gets to dictate the terms of the debate, defuse much of the threat, and even come out looking like a put-upon martyr. The layers of self-awareness and self-referentiality at the heart of this film are dizzying (is a man any less emotionally immature if he makes a dazzling film about how emotionally immature he is?) Nevertheless, the resolute honesty of Manhattan ultimately wins the day, and despite all these issues, or perhaps because of them, the film succeeds wonderfully. It handles adult (and not-so-adult) relationships with the complexity they deserve, while also containing some of the funniest lines of Allen’s movie career (like “I think people should mate for life. Like pigeons, or Catholics” and “Your self-esteem is a notch below Kafka’s.”). Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman never seemed so perfectly matched.
– Ben Stephens