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Manhattan (1979)

Dreaming in Color

Seriously, why isn't Woody Allen our most heralded director? And why have I come to his movies so late in life? I feel exactly like the kind of thoughtless Neanderthal his character in Manhattan, Isaac, would ridicule for floundering in a world of cheap entertainment.

The film centers on Isaac's equally daunting challenges of finding love and getting over an ego that is at once expansive and deeply bruised. We meet him in a bar, in the middle of light conversation with his best friends, a married couple named Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne), and his new girlfriend, seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemmingway). The age difference is shocking at first (Isaac is forty-two), but we soon learn of an even queasier coupling: Yale confesses to Isaac that he's cheating with Mary (Diane Keaton), a snobby, firebrand journalist.

Yale is conflicted about the relationship, but not so embarrassed that he doesn't introduce his best friend to his mistress. They instantly hate each other; while everyone in the movie is an intellectual to some degree, there's a definite philosophical divide between the Mary type, who speaks loftily about art, literature and politics--only to declare all of it lame (her phlegmy pronunciation of "overrated" artist Vincent Van Gogh's name as "Vincent Van Gaaahchh" drives Isaac nuts); and the Isaac type, who despises popular culture but has a no time for people who don't appreciate art and sensitivity. Of course, they end up together.

That part's not surprising, although the speed with which they hook up is. I'd expected Manhattan to be more about Isaac being jealous of his boneheaded, unavailable friend; but Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman keep Isaac front and center, focusing the story on his new dilemma of a three-way relationship: he and Tracy; he and Mary; and he and his incredible neuroses. He carries the burden of not telling Emily about Yale's indiscretions and then feels the shame of two-timing Tracy. But that guilt is out-matched by the joy he feels in going out with such sexy, challenging women.

Stepping back from the synopsis, I realize this probably sounds like a Melrose Place episode recap--and I haven't even mentioned Isaac's newly-out-lesbian ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep) or the book she's writing about their failed marriage. The brilliance of Manhattan is that the picture flows smoothly and picks up story details and personality quirks the way a river carries driftwood. The situations never feel contrived; I believed in the silly mistakes these people made and watched in horrified delight as they dug themselves deeper into tragicomic holes.

The screenplay has a lot to do with that success and, unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen's injection of pseudo-standup anecdotes into Isaac's dialogue doesn't feel the least bit phony here; partially, I think, because he's a television writer/aspiring novelist (just like most of the other characters he meets). But also because Isaac finds himself in the middle of a lot of ridiculous conversations, which naturally opens his comedic floodgates.

But so much credit has to be given to the cast. What's great is that Allen's casting shows us just how right or wrong his couples are for each other, long before anyone on-screen realizes it.  This is a wonderfully bonkers group of Muppies (Middle-aged Urban Professionals), all fighting to rationalize their basest impulses with things they learned in school. Murphy and Keaton collide in a wreck of bored, desperation/fear of aging and a desperate need to be loved, respectively. Murphy plays Yale as a geeky stud who has everything together on the outside but who, by the end of the movie, is reduced to the kind of whining mess that he, I think, always perceived Isaac as. And Keaton tells us so much about Mary's upbringing both in the way she delivers her little bit of backstory dialogue and in the public/private dichotomy of her personality; she rambles on authoritatively about modern art as if she'd invented the form but then stomps around in a tantrum because she can't figure out why she only attracts weird, unavailable men; she also has a dog named Waffles.

Hemmingway and Streep do wonders with their smaller parts. As Jill, Streep embodies the cumulative frustration of a life lived with a self-absorbed, spineless intellectual; it's never suggested that Isaac's problems drove her to lesbianism, but there's a liberated airiness in their scenes--argumentative as they are--that illustrates the difference between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones. And Hemmingway is a revelation; only eighteen at the time, she emodies an intelligence that has not yet allowed its innocence to be corrupted. Though Tracy hangs out with people who are older than her parents, she doesn't get caught up in their bullshit. Indeed, she's the only cool voice of reason in Isaac's life; so, naturally he ignores her, except when it's convenient.

Despite being kind of a lovable asshole, Isaac makes for a wonderful, modern hero. Growing up, I remember a pop meme that said women found Woody Allen really sexy (until that mid-90s business, which, in light of his films' subject matter, should have surprised no one). I never got that, but I do now. He's smart and bookishly attractive, but he is also unafraid to wear his troubled heart on the lapel of his corduroy jacket. It's hard to say who the real Allen is, but Isaac feels like such an autobiographical construct that he might as well be a flesh-and-blood heartbreaker. As much as I didn't approve of Isaac's lecherousness, Allen made me understand it; and even sold it to me a bit by coloring his urges with a sense of moral conflict that is so undeniably human that I couldn't believe I was watching a romantic comedy.

The coolest character in the movie, though, is Manhattan. I hate it when critics describe a time or a place as a character because it's just cute, lazy shorthand that rarely means anything. So when I say the city is a "character", I mean that Allen spends so much time fetishizing the city's "personality" that it might as well have received a SAG membership. This isn't a knock. In fact, the way in which he and cinematographer Gordon Willis shoot the city informs the story as much as it gives it a place to unfold. In most scenes, the characters are small in the frame, underlining how ridiculous their self-imposed problems are in the grand scheme of things; in some cases, this dwarfing presents New York as the ultimate shrine to beauty, a place where people can't help but fall in love.

Allen's decision to shoot in black and white is another genius stroke. The light/dark dynamic sells the buildings, parks and apartments as the architectural and natural wonders that they are. The camera movements often create abstract images that morph into clarity (as in the beautiful planetarium scene, where Isaac and Mary's faces become talking constellations). Manhattan is such a crisp, gorgeous looking picture that after awhile I started to believe that I could get on a plane to New York and step off into a magical world of gray tones.

Once again, I find myself lamenting the fact that more filmmakers haven't followed Woody Allen's lead in the decades since he started making wonderful movies like this. Maybe audiences are too afraid of watching people who talk like they've earned degrees, or maybe the people who get movies made think that of ticket buyers. Whatever the case, I can't think of a recent romantic comedy that is as satisfying comedically, dramatically, or visually, and that's really, really sad.

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