Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Break-up With Manhattan

For most of my adult life, I've listed Manhattan as possibly my favorite Woody Allen film. It made that much of an impression when I saw it in 1980. Hence, I was enthused about a recent opportunity to view it again. But now having seen it after 34 years, I am stunned that I ever thought so highly of it. It is not a dreadful film, but neither is it a very good one.

Allen as the often befuddled Isaac.
Allen plays Isaac, a 42-year-old New York City television writer who aspires to write the Great American Novel. Like most Allen characters, he is flush with insecurities about his talent (he abruptly quits his job) and the opposite sex (an ex-wife leaves him for a woman). His girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), is a 17-year-old high school student. His best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is a pseudo-intellectual snob who is cheating on his wife. Yale's mistress Mary (Diane Keaton) initially irritates Isaac, but--as both characters search for something missing in their lives--he finds himself falling for her. 

Diane Keaton as Mary.
Manhattan is often described as a bookend to Annie Hall, with the general perception that both films were inspired by the real-life romance between Allen and Keaton. By the time the two stars made Manhattan, they had broken up. Their friendship remained intact, though, and perhaps their natural byplay is what attracted me to Manhattan. Keaton remains the perfect Ying to Allen's Yang. Their scenes seem real, but it's when they're apart that the film falls apart. 

Individually, it's hard to root for these people. Isaac is sometimes amusing, but he's also incredibly selfish. He dumps Tracy when he thinks he loves Mary. When that doesn't work out, he wants Tracy to forget her dreams and take him back. Mary rejects Yale because he doesn't have time for her. Later, she dumps Isaac because she thinks she still loves Yale. Enough already! Those characters come across as confused, self-centered intellectuals with few redeeming qualities (well, we do see Isaac in one scene with his son). 

Mariel Hemingway and Allen.
The most appealing character is Tracy, who, despite her youth, displays more maturity than any of the principals. Yet, it's sad to watch her waste her life with Isaac--even if he does educate her on classic cinema. She seems to have lost her zest for life at an early age.

Frankly, I also find their relationship disturbing, for Isaac is clearly having sex with a teenager. Of course, there are now obvious parallels to Woody's real life marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, who was supposedly a slightly older 19, when she and the 56-year-old Allen began their relationship. (For the record, Allen also allegedly had a fling in the late 1970s with 17-year-old actress Stacey Nelkin, who served as the basis for Tracy). 

The cast standouts are Mariel Hemingway as Tracy and Meryl Streep as one of Allen's ex-wives. Hemingway received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but lost the award to Streep, who won for Kramer vs. Kramer

In retrospect, Manhattan works best as an ode to the city. Lovingly captured in black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the city comes to life--the skyscraper landscapes, the neon signs, the historic landmarks. Willis captures all of these breathtaking imagines with a gray pallette that somehow transforms Manhattan into a magical place. Amazingly, Willis did not even receive an Oscar nomination for his work. In fact, Willis never won an Academy Award, though he was given an honorary one in 2010 for "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color, and motion." Three of those four elements are wonderfully on display in Manhattan
Keaton and Allen as silhouettes in a planetarium.

I realize that my revised assessment of Manhattan contradicts the one held by most critics and film buffs. I don't mind being in the minority and, if you disagree adamantly, please leave a comment below. What I found most interesting, as I reflected on this film again, is that I rarely change my mind about a movie I've seen. And when I do, it's almost always a case of increasing admiration. That makes Manhattan a rarity--and, for me, not in a good way.


  1. For me, Manhattan has long been a film I consistently place in my top 20 (or even 10) favorite films. It would be foolish to argue against your opinion; it's yours and you state several reasons for your revision. I know many people who have "left the Woody camp" as a result of his personal life i.e. Soon Yi & ex wife Mia Farrow's allegations against him. The social taboo of Issac's relationship with Tracy in the film is certainly made more odious as a result of said allegations.
    You mention the brilliance of the late great Gordon Willis, which for me in Manhattan is only surpassed by his cinematography in the Godfather & Godfather 2. I'm curious that you failed to mention the Gershwin score that so perfectly is wed to the theme and setting of Manhattan. I consider this one of the finest soundtracks of non original (or is it adapted?) music ever. Zubin Mehta and the NY Philharmonic renditions from the Gershwin songbook are played with perfection and a soulful quality that capture the swing era beautifully. Gary Graffman's piano playing on Rhapsody in Blue (at the film's opening) is still the version I enjoy the most. It is in my view, one of those rare films that so effectively makes a city a character in the film. Not just the stills or even tracking shots of iconic locations, but with the musical accompaniment; the scene at Elaine's, the peripatetic street sequences and even interiors, we come to see and feel the better parts of what makes New York a great city.
    Issac's droll musings at the end on "What makes life worth living" is, for me, so wonderfully enlivened by that last final scene and Tracy uttering that last line that serves as the most appropriate and romantic response to all of his neurotic and cynical bon mots; (with Rhapsody in Blue once again) "Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people."
    For me that is just a perfect ending (for so many reasons) and though it may seem obtuse to say, it leaves me with that rare thought and feeling of, truth.

    1. Yes, I should have mentioned the excellent use of Gershwin music for the score. That was inspired. (I also like the use of Cole Porter music in EVIL UNDER THE SUN.)

  2. Fine, perceptive review. I never liked the film, and now I have a clearer idea of why.

  3. I'm not a big fan of this one, either. I agree that Allen makes the city a lot more lovable than the people who inhabit it. I generally like the more fantastic Allen stories - like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO - or the ones where a different actor takes the Allen role - like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (which is also very much a fantasy). It's always sad, though, when we come back to a film we really loved at some point and find that it has lost that special charm it once held for us.

  4. I've never seen this one. Woody Allen, for me, is a bit hit and miss. (Loved "Manhattan Murder Mystery", "Blue Jasmine" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo"; never could see appeal of "Annie Hall" or "Hannah and Her Sisters".) I'd be interested in seeing the black & white Manhattan as portrayed by Allen, but the rest of it sounds uninteresting.

  5. Rick, this is a well written breakup review that I found to be very perceptive. The beauty of Willis's cinematography is undeniable and the music is lovely, as Fulmer stated. But the characters are mostly annoying and I really don't care for them today. So I, too, will leave "Manhattan" and not look back.