Manhattan Murder Mystery

With the exceptions of Manhattan and Annie Hall, I always like Woody Allen more when he tries to do less (i.e., Broadway Danny Rose more than Crimes and Misdemeanors). Husbands and Wives proved almost unendurable, not because it was haunted by the ghost of Woody and Mia present but because the relentless Jean-Luc Godardian camera work was both inappropriate and almost, literally, nauseating. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, the actor Allen is again teamed up with Diane Keaton and writer/director Allen provides them with perfect material. As if William Powell were back with Myrna Loy or Gracie Allen with George Burns, Keaton and Allen revel in each other's presence. Their verbal timing and comic use of space (watching them maneuver around each other is funnier than most stand-ups) is seamless. They play classic long-married New Yorkers who accidently meet a just-retired couple (Adler and Cohen) across the hall, dropping in for coffee. A few days later the wife suddenly dies and Keaton becomes more and more convinced that the neighbor's husband did her in. The brilliance here is in the dialogue and characterization. The plot is clever and involving, and best not talked about. But we get to indulge in classic Allen -- adult conversation at its sharpest and wittiest, never better than when centered around Allen and Keaton. Although Allen resists her interest, their recently divorced friend (Alda) encourages Keaton, on whom he has always had a crush. Allen meanwhile deals with a tough writer (Huston) whom he is trying to set up with Alda. The acting is consistently inspired (Huston is simply from another -- positively celestial -- planet) and Allen controls his more elaborate cinematic impulses. Filled with homages to the great detective films, the plot is simply a series of charming conceits. The play is about relationships: what we are and who we are and who we are with each other. It insists on mystery as a vehicle of possibility and, for Allen, is remarkably optimistic. Fast and funny, it makes you wish this would-be American master was more often lightweight.

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