Woody Allen’s most impassioned movie—if one accepts the popular notion that the great love of the comedian’s life is New York City, not any of his children or romantic companions—Manhattan is intoxicating from an aesthetic perspective. Allen’s genius notion of pairing George Gershwin’s resplendent music with artful black-and-white images of New York City turns every exterior shot into a cinematic postcard, and the way Allen stages an elaborate dance of interconnected romantic relationships against this magical backdrop accentuates the appealing idea that Manhattan is made for lovers. Yet the film is also challenging and complex, a hyper-literate saga starring Allen as a character for whom it’s difficult to sympathize.
By the filmmaker’s own admission, Manhattan synthesizes elements from his two immediately preceding pictures, the bittersweet romance Annie Hall (1977) and the bleak family story Interiors (1978). Thus, Manhattan’s blend of farce and pathos arguably represents Allen’s first truly mature work, a human story that neither hides behind crowd-pleasing jokes nor indulges in pretentious psychodrama. Manhattan is not for every taste, to be sure, but it’s a fascinating film made with exceptional intelligence and skill. Plus, even if the characters are painfully neurotic and self-serving, that’s at least partially the point—building on the sharply observed character work in Annie Hall, Allen used Manhattan to further hone his skills for cultural observation and social satire, and none of the film’s characters (including the Allen-esque scribe whom the director portrays) escapes devastating scrutiny.
The main plot concerns the romantic travails of Isaac Davis (Allen), a comedy writer who is sleeping with a 17-year-old student (Mariel Hemingway). Despite this entanglement, Isaac is also drawn to a woman his own age (Diane Keaton), who is having an adulterous fling with Issac’s (married) best friend (Michael Murphy). Meanwhile, Isaac’s ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who came out as a lesbian after her marriage to Isaac ended, is writing a tell-all book about their relationship. Working once more with Annie Hall cowriter Marshall Brickman, Allen constantly jogs back and forth between comedy and drama, often in the same scene, and the film’s acidic dialogue explores the many ways people impede their own happiness.
The central love story isn’t as compelling as that in Annie Hall—it’s hard to root for a grown man who’s schtupping a schoolgirl—and the movie sometimes skews a little too downbeat. However, the blazingly intelligent writing, the uniformly wonderful performances, and Gordon Willis’ spectacular cinematography make the film thoroughly rewarding. (Of special note among the actors is Hemingway, who gives the best performance of her career at a very young age; the curiosity, emotion, and naïveté she brings to her character almost makes Isaac’s inappropriate involvement understandable.) Most of all, it’s compelling to watch Allen’s artistry reach an early peak, and to realize that over the course of the ’70s, he rapidly evolved from a lightweight jokester to one of the world’s most important cinematic storytellers.
Manhattan: RIGHT ON