Manhattan Murder Mystery

By Rita Kempley

August 20, 1993

Woody Allen may be fickle when it comes to his leading ladies, perhaps because his heart has always belonged to New York -- the Candy Apple with curb-side parking that anchors all his films. "Manhattan Murder Mystery," his most aggressively parochial movie yet, opens with Bobby Short's version of "I Happen to Like New York," his fawning lyrics lingering while the camera makes love to the nighttime skyline.

The romantic backdrop of twinkling lights and splashing fountains goes underappreciated, however, by the Liptons, a couple of cozy middle-agers played by Allen and Diane Keaton. Happily, these two stir up stardust memories of his earlier, funnier work, instead of the embarrassing voyeurism of "Husbands and Wives."

Writing with his old partner Marshall Brickman ("Sleeper," "Annie Hall," "Manhattan"), Allen produces his blithest film ever. It's an amiable caper descended from the "Thin Man" series, with Keaton as a kookier Nora Charles and Allen not as Nick but Asta, their twitchy wire-haired fox terrier.

The Liptons -- Carol, a would-be restaurateur, and Larry, a book editor -- are trying to rejuvenate their marriage of nearly 20 years when the movie opens. Carol agrees to attend a Rangers game with Larry, who has promised to join her at the opera. But Larry, who invariably backs out, explains, "I can't listen to Wagner. I get the urge to conquer Poland."

They are just returning from one of these exchanges when they run into the Houses, a dull but friendly older couple who insist on having them over for coffee. The next day, the Liptons are shocked to learn that Mrs. House (Lynn Cohen), a vigorous LifeCycler, has died of a heart attack.

To Larry's increasing dismay, Carol begins to suspect Mr. House (Jerry Adler) of murdering his wife. When she steals the super's key and sneaks into the Houses' apartment, Larry commands her to give up this nonsense. "We could be living next door to a murderer," she frets. "New York is a melting pot," he retorts before turning over to get some sleep. Carol, who has been invigorated by her obsession, is not about to be dissuaded and is up snooping before he's counted the first sheep.

She has a partner in crime-fighting in family friend Ted (Alan Alda), a divorced playwright who joins her on various stakeouts. Larry, who is threatened by Ted's obvious affection for his wife, introduces him to a vivacious novelist (dishy Anjelica Huston), who in turn threatens Carol. As the evidence mounts, the four concoct an elaborately merry scheme to bring the murderer to justice. It's like one of those murder mystery weekends run amok.

Keaton may dress like an air cargo handler, but she gives a performance that is really rather delicate. She doesn't indulge in stuttering or fidgeting -- a good thing since Allen has seldom been itchier. Still, it's a happy reunion for the pair, who click like two champagne glasses. Their rapport is as easygoing as the movie itself. It's no wonder we don't miss Mamma Mia, for whom the Keaton role was originally written.

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" is decidedly light fare, an amusing farce geared more to mainstream audiences than die-hard Woodman fans, who will nevertheless appreciate Allen's flashy references to "Double Indemnity" and "The Lady From Shanghai." All that, and the marriage survives too.

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