[box cover]


MGM Home Video

Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway,
Michael Murphy, Anne Byrne, and Meryl Streep

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Back to Review Index

Back to Quick Reviews

Placed in the context of Woody Allen's filmography, his 1979 film Manhattan is a glorious experiment that almost works perfectly. After his successes in the early 70s with broader comedies like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death, he took his first step towards more autobiographical work with 1977's Annie Hall. It was a huge hit — even winning the Oscar for Best Picture — and allowed him the freedom to make the disastrous Interiors, his visually stunning but emotionally grating homage to Ingmar Bergman. Allen has said of the film, "I wanted to go for the highest kind of drama. And if I failed, I failed. That's okay. But what I was aiming for, if I had made it, it would have been very, very significant. I'm not saying that I made it, but the ambition was good, the ambition was high." Critics were divided on the film, and the public reception was tepid.

Manhattan is Allen's attempt to blend the artistry of Interiors with the accessibility of Annie Hall and, for the most part, it works. The story concerns Isaac/Woody, a dissatisfied writer for a "Saturday Night Live"-like television show. He's unhappy with his work writing comedy and kvetches to his married friends Yale and Emily (Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne) that he'd rather be working on his book. He's also uncomfortable with his current romantic relationship with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), with whom he has great rapport but can't reconcile the difference in their ages. These themes of the serious artist desiring to escape the shackles of comedy and the neurotic man who can't appreciate the good woman right under his nose will be repeated over and over in Allen's later films, but here they are still fresh and somewhat underplayed. When Isaac meets Mary (Diane Keaton), the neurotic hyper-intellectual with whom Yale is having an affair, he finds a woman who is more his intellectual — and emotional — equal than Tracy, and he breaks off that relationship. Isaac's constant second-guessing about his romantic and career choices, while Mary obsessively questions her relationships with Isaac, Yale and even her ex-husband, provide the framework within which Allen riffs on society and human interaction.

But the real theme of Manhattan is buried well within the second act of the film, when Isaac describes the plot of the novel he's working on: "It's about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves, because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe." The two male characters, Isaac and Yale, are both self-absorbed and devoid of any sort of internal moral compass (very common to male characters in Allen's films) while the women that they cheat on are good, even-tempered, and undeserving of the treatment they receive at Yale and Isaac's hands. Keaton's character is a female archetype also seen repeatedly in Allen's work — the messed up, high-strung WASP who Allen desires but with whom he can't create a workable relationship. Isaac's ex-wife in the film is another neurotic shiksa — played by the statuesque and pervasively blond Meryl Streep — and their history involves her leaving him for another woman and writing a tell-all book about their failed marriage. Much humor is derived from a past incident where Isaac tried to run his ex and her lover over with his car — an illustration that Woody provides to give some insight as to where these ill-advised relationships ultimately end up.

Looking back on Manhattan after two decades, it's brilliance and its flaws are easy to discern. First and foremost, this is a gorgeous film — beautifully framed and shot in rich black-and-white by cinematographer Gordon Willis. The score is perfectly matched to the picture, a selection of classic Gershwin tunes performed by the New York Philharmonic specifically for the film. The contrast between the scope and beauty of Allen's New York and the cramped, oppressive interiors of the characters' homes is used to great effect, illustrating how the people in this film limit deliberately themselves by their own choosing. Manhattan also offers our first real look at the static camera technique that Allen would come to use in many of his other films, framing a shot and then having the actors walk in and out the scene rather than following them with the camera.

Manhattan has few flaws, but one real problem is Allen's inability to allow himself to be genuine as an actor. While Manhattan is obviously a very personal and even autobiographical film, Allen hides behind his alter ego and tosses out punch lines while the other actors give more natural performances around him. Keaton, Murphy, Streep and the others are obviously taking this seriously and attempting to portray real people — and while Allen is certainly more natural than in, say, Bananas, he seems unwilling to let go of the security blanket of playing a comic character long enough to let us see inside. Mariel Hemingway is rather weak as an actress in many of her scenes with Allen, but her dignity through her tears when Isaac breaks off their romance, telling her he loves someone else, is very real and very moving.

The transfer is — thankfully — very good, and Willis's work is showcased beautifully in the anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen format. The blacks are deep and rich, the gray tones complex, and there's very little noticeable noise. The audio is mono only, unfortunately, in Dolby 2.0. It's perfectly acceptable for the purpose of viewing the film but doesn't really do justice to the music, which is well worth a separate purchase of the soundtrack CD. Allen is reportedly not a fan of extras on DVDs, and this MGM release is pretty bare bones — just the theatrical trailer is included (which hasn't been cared for like the movie, so it's noisy and pretty ugly). Keep case.

-- Dawn Taylor

[Back to Review Index]     [Back to Quick Reviews]     [Back to Main Page]

© 2000, The DVD Journal