Saturday 19 September 2020

Movie Review: Manhattan (1979)

An intellectual romantic comedy, Manhattan is writer-director Woody Allen's love letter to his borough. Multiple overlapping romantic entanglements among a small group of friends provide rich reflections on a complex city. 

Twice-divorced 42 year old Isaac Davis (Allen) lives in Manhattan and works as a writer for a low-brow live-audience television show. His current girlfriend is 17 year old student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and she is more invested in their relationship. Isaac's best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a teacher, is married but having an affair with writer and editor Mary (Diane Keaton). Isaac and Mary initially clash, but gradually build a friendship.

Isaac learns his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep, on the cusp of stardom), who is now in a lesbian relationship, is writing a tell-all book exposing the sordid details of their marriage. He also has a meltdown at work and is forced to look for a new apartment. Then Yale breaks off the affair with Mary and Tracy secures a student position in London, clearing the way for Isaac and Mary to start a serious relationship, but their previous liaisons will linger.

Filmed in wispy black and white, Manhattan opens with a montage of New York cityscapes and Isaac narrating various iterations of self-definition through his impressions of the city. Allen (who co-wrote the script with Marshall Brickman) identifies his main character through the prism of the town's strengths and frustrations, and the film proceeds to tightly focus on a small group of friends navigating emotional ups and downs.

Many hookups and breakups occur during the course of 96 minutes, but Manhattan's beauty resides in the cloud-like narrative progression. Allen weaves the stories into a seamless fabric devoid of melodrama, milestones noted almost in passing through engrossing scenes of dialogue, the city an ever-present backdrop observer.

Allen's trademark neurotic self-obsession here extends to almost all the main characters (Tracy is the most grounded), and a layer of deprecating self-awareness is added to the pulsing anxiety. Isaac admits his problems are small in the overall global context, but personal angst is potentially manageable while the world's crises are not. Both Isaac and Mary are seeing shrinks, although her shrink may need his own better therapist. 

The lovers carry their emotional luggage, accumulated from previous broken marriages, in plain sight, and honesty is close to the surface throughout. Isaac is blunt with Tracy that their relationship has a short shelf life, while both Yale and Mary are mindful their affair is ridiculous and doomed to fail, and yet they are caught in a web of illicit love.

The group of friends exist in an isolated bubble of upper middle class bourgeois writers seemingly oblivious to any other social constructs. With rapidfire elite cultural references to the likes of Flaubert, Freud, Zelda Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, August Strindberg, Fellini, and Bergman, Allen rides a fine line between humour and altogether alienating a large chunk of his audience.

But Manhattan ultimately draws down the curtain on 1970s portrayals of New York. The dangerous, dirty and downbeat city of the past cinematic decade is eased out, replaced with art galleries and museums, a safe Central Park, the Russian Tea Room, elite cocktail gatherings and the glorious Queensboro Bridge at sunrise. Inspired by the optimistic tunes of George Gershwin, the city is set to reinvent itself for a new decade, marked by the red heart of those who choose to love it.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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