Manhattan

Dan Jardine

Manhattan opens with a snake charmer clarinet wail marking the opening bars of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which combines with magnificent vistas of the New York City skyline to cast a spell that holds right to the bittersweet concluding shot of a tortured Allen, struggling to grasp a child’s wisdom. The immaculate black and white photography, the aural delight of the Gershwin score, the culinary crumbs of food and drink scattered throughout the movie create a film that, at a sensual and emotional level, is Woody Allen’s best.

Woody’s persona in Manhattan is Isaac Davis, whose neuroses and pathetic vulnerability are combined with professional dissatisfaction (he’s unhappy with his work writing for television and struggling to complete a novel) and romantic entanglement – trapped between a comfortable relationship with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) a girl less than half his age, and a burgeoning attraction to an attractive but intellectually combative Mary (Diane Keaton). Mary is apparently the better match — they are of similar age, interests and quirkiness — but her constant reminders that she is from Philadelphia identify her permanent “other-ness” and despite Isaac’s inevitable attraction to that which is “not-him,” their essential incompatibility is an incontrovertible, insurmountable obstacle. Mary too is paralysed by her extra-marital affair with Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). She knows it can’t work, but is inexplicably unable to extricate herself from it.

Placed within the context of New York City’s most awe-inspiring architecture, Allen capably satirises the film’s petty, duplicative and vindictive relationships. Manhattan’s settings underline the themes, as in the immaculately conceived and shot planetarium scene, where Isaac and Mary explore the possibilities of a relationship. Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman display a deft ear for dialogue and, combined with Allen’s innate pessimism, create humour with an emotional depth rarely found in the romantic comedy genre.

Manhattan shows us people so busy trying to impress others, they forget how to be themselves. This self-delusion is indicated when we finally meet Mary’s legendary first hubby Jeremiah, and he turns out to be none other than the frumpy Wallace Shawn. Isaac’s similar obsession with his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep in a cameo) allows Allen to be affectingly self-deprecatory, while also casting more light on this theme. The intellectual elitism and faux sophistication of Yale and Mary is contrasted with the naïf-like emotional honesty of Tracy – whose Minnie Mouse voice betrays a depth of emotion and character that become apparent in the film’s beautifully rendered concluding scene. This scene lovingly updates the Bogie-Bergman airplane scene that climaxes Casablanca. Here, rather than altruistic Rick, Isaac is the prototypically self-absorbed New Yorker, pleading with his young lover NOT to leave on that plane. Teenager Tracy is ironically presented as the mature one, calming and encouraging Isaac to have a little faith in people.

Its emotional honesty and depth, tender and humane humour and remarkable sensual splendour place Manhattan among Allen’s best.

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