Widely regarded as one of Woody Allen's best films, Manhattan is an endearing romantic comedy that takes a picturesque black & white tour of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Filmed in 1979, this aesthetically gorgeous picture is often deemed a follow-up to Woody's Annie Hall from 1977. Manhattan makes no attempt to eschew the proverbial Woody Allen trademarks. It's autobiographical by nature, and was even named after the city Woody so passionately (and frequently) commits to celluloid. This particular film is a quantum leap in regards to style, craft and maturity of the subject matter. From a decidedly basic story, the gifted Woody Allen has produced an extraordinarily mature, honest and funny motion picture.
The heart of the story concerns Isaac Davis (Allen). He's a neurotic 42-year-old in the midst of a mid-life crisis: he hates his job as a writer, he's dating a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl named Tracy (Hemingway) who's in love with him, and he's divorced. To make matters worse, his now-lesbian ex-wife (Streep) is currently penning a devastatingly personal "tell all" novel about their marriage and eventual break-up.
Isaac finds no pleasure or satisfaction in writing pure junk for a television program for a paycheck, and instead aspires to write the great New York novel. In order to get serious about his novel, Isaac quits his job.
Isaac's best friend Yale (Murphy) is happily married, but is nevertheless having an affair with a woman named Mary (Keaton). Gradually, Isaac falls in love with Yale's mistress. But Isaac is still troubled by his relationship with the youthful Tracy. She's madly in love with him and wishes to take their relationship to the next level...Isaac, however, does not love Tracy in return. Instead he opts to break off the relationship and pursue Mary instead.
Logically enough, the city of Manhattan functions as a central character - probably as crucial as the characters navigating its streets. In various respects, Manhattan is Woody Allen's classic love-hate letter to the city of his soul. Collaborating with master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Woody used black and white photography for the first time. In addition to this, the film was shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Black and white was employed to give a texture and polish to the city, and the results are simply intoxicating. In expanding the aspect ratio, a greater level of density was built to give a deeper feeling of detail and scope to Woody's vision. Willis' photography surpasses postcard pretty...the essence of the city has been marvellously encapsulated in a way no-one had ever accomplished before. Manhattan is also Woody Allen's most personal film. The absence of colour imagery reflects Isaac's disillusion with both his career and the clique of friends surrounding him. All are writers - he's a writer for TV, his former wife is writing a feminist tract on their marriage, Yale is working on a biography of Eugene O'Neill, and Mary is a both a critic and a columnist. Furthermore, conversations are interspersed with allusions to creative artists, from Strindberg and Kafka to Ingmar Bergman, Fellini and Groucho Marx.
Over the decades, New York City has transformed into a different city altogether. Woody Allen's Manhattan is a city of subtle beauty. It is also a place of marvellous intellectual incentive, and serenity between the frantic traffic. It's refreshing to see the city sans mobile phones, computers and, more or less, electronics in general. Woody and Willis capture the simple silence of a city before the advent of advanced technology - it's all the more striking as a window to a prior generation and as a remarkably poignant snapshot of life in the 1970s for typical New Yorkers.
Isaac: "You had the wrong kind? I've never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money."
Allen generates wonderful comedy through his witty dialogue. Never are laughs blatant or contrived - there is no slapstick, for example. All the laugh-out-loud dialogue is natural, never forced. Manhattan is frequently marred, however, by Woody Allen's constant ravings. Although beautifully photographed, the film also occasionally lacks a vital spark to energise the dialogue and sustain a viewer's interest. Despite a runtime of merely 95 minutes, the film needed to be tighter. As Woody rambles unremittingly, the actor at times fails to engage.
In essence, Woody's character of Isaac Davis is a more mature, fleshed-out version of Alvy Singer from Annie Hall. It's amazing how the filmmaker and star manages to successfully pull off variations of his typical screen persona. Throughout his career, Woody Allen has performed as Woody Allen in spades. He's usually appetising, but at other times he needs to learn restraint during his rambles.
Diane Keaton plays the somewhat unpleasant, possibly egotistic object of Woody's infatuations - i.e. the same type of role she always plays in a Woody Allen picture. Suitably, this is acting by numbers for Diane. Mariel Hemingway copped an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the 17-year-old love interest. The naivety and immaturity of her performance conveys the uncertainty inherent in this type of relationship. The anguish she endures as Isaac dumps her, and the bewilderment she experiences when he randomly returns to her is totally honest and natural. Mariel's performance is top-notch, and it rings with such wonderful truth. Her performance is endowed with charm and grace.
In supporting roles, a young Meryl Streep features as Isaac's lesbian ex-wife. She fuses the right tone of antagonism with just the right sense of humour, allowing her to seem much more than the standard, two-dimensional ex-wife bitch. Michael Murphy is on hand as Yale: Isaac's best friend, and straight man to Isaac's jokes.
If ever there was a filmmaker whose work divided opinions so rigorously, it'd be Woody Allen. Various audiences find it challenging to "get into" Woody's films. After all, he plays the same character - basically himself - all the time: Jewish liberal neurotic with narcissistic overtones. If you're irritated by his usual mannerisms, you'll most likely roll your eyes at his frequent casting of beautiful young starlets as his love interest. Unsurprisingly, the critics chose to chastise Allen for selecting a 17 year-old blonde as his Soul Mate for this picture. But the young lady epitomises the vigour and excitement that Isaac had forgotten existed within Manhattan. This is definitely one of Woody's most interesting films.
When Woody Allen viewed the rough cut of Manhattan, he told producers Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe to destroy every frame - and if they did, he'd direct another film for United Artists for free. It may have been a critical and commercial success, but Manhattan is to date Woody's least favourite film from his extensive oeuvre. Be that as it may, this film is both tremendously funny and ultimately very poignant. New York City looks beautiful when captured by Gordon Willis' lens, and it's gift-wrapped with a bow courtesy of the gorgeous music of George Gershwin. The writing is sharp and perceptive, with all of the performances uniformly on the mark. For the first-time Woody Allen viewer, Manhattan is an ideal place to start. His strengths are on ample display, with very few of his excesses.