February 17, 2019

Manhattan (1979)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway

What it's about. Woody Allen is, surprise, an unmarried writer living in New York City. He is dating Mariel Hemingway, a 17-year-old less than half his age, but despite her beauty and devotion, he seems eager to break off their relationship.

But he must be dating someone, so he strings her along until Diane Keaton is available. He finds her unconventional opinions infuriating, but she is confident, outgoing, and attractive. Keaton was previously the mistress of Allen's best friend, nice guy Michael Murphy. Murphy is married to loyal Anne Byrne Hoffman.

Allen is the subject of a tell-all book by his ex-wife, Meryl Streep, who left him for another woman, Karen Ludwig. Allen has a lucrative position as a television executive, which he quits in disgust to concentrate on a fiction book whose reception is uncertain. This forces Allen to move into a lower middle class apartment.

How others will see it. Woody Allen's immediately preceding film, Interiors, drew a mixed reaction from critics. Manhattan was seen as a return to Annie Hall territory, a romantic comedy with Allen on solid ground.

Today's viewers, aware of Allen's marriage to his live-in lover's adopted daughter, and child abuse allegations against Allen raised by Mia and Dylan Farrow, may be uncomfortable with the on-screen sexual relationship between middle-aged Allen and 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway. Where are her parents? But it appears that in 1979, neither critics nor the public had significant concerns.

In fact, Manhattan was a big money-maker for United Artists, and a huge hit on the festival circuit. BAFTA, in particular, regarded the movie as if it were Gone With the Wind, awarding Best Film and Best Screenplay to Manhattan, and nominating it for a laundry list of major awards (including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actress nods for both Streep and Hemingway).

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a very respectable 120K user votes and a very high user rating of 8.0 out of 10. There is no appreciable demographic spread. Most everyone, it seems, likes the movie, except probably Mia and Dylan Farrow. Negative user reviews exist, of course, raging on about "statutory rape" and "very questionable morals," although some merely consider the movie boring. It does have a lot of dialogue, and there are no auto accidents.

How I felt about it. Manhattan is almost certainly Woody Allen's best movie. The question is, why. Why is it better than Annie Hall, or The Purple Rose of Cairo, or Play It Again, Sam, or The Front. Allen did not direct the last two movies, but his fingerprints are all over them.

Allen's character makes odd decisions. He quits his high paying job out of artistic integrity. He dumps his slavishly devoted teenage lover to chase a fickle and opinionated socialite. These are self-destructive acts, but that conclusion also provides the explanation. He is a selfish intellectual nebbish, and deep down, knows he doesn't deserve either success or happiness.

Perhaps Manhattan works better than other Allen movies because Allen's character approaches Allen himself. He feels guilt over his relationship with Hemingway, he feels remorse about quitting his sellout job, despair over the progress of his yet-unpublished book, bipolar highs and lows over his relationship with the unpredictable Keaton, and frustration over revelations published by his frenemy ex-wife Streep. Happy days aren't here again. Happiness is instead the desert mirage of water that, once approached, turns out to be yet more sand.