Dir: Woody Allen, 1979. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep. Comedy/Drama

Manhattan could be America's most moving film about the genuine love between a forty-something-year-old intellectual and a 17-year-old high school student. Well, it's about a bit more than that, but the central storyline is moving in ways few people can quite articulate, but are quick to call "brilliant." Both completely modern yet seemingly timeless, Woody Allen's 1979 film provides a picturesque tribute to one of the world's great cities, as well as a bold statement on finding romantic happiness in not so widely agreeable places.

Allen stars as Isaac Davis, a single father and writer living in Manhattan, who most would consider depressed. Involved in what he considers a meaningless relationship with the underaged Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) are concerned Isaac is wasting his life away with the girl while writing junk television shows. Isaac starts to re-evaluate his situation, however, after meeting Yale's mistress Mary (Diane Keaton). At first repelled by her "pseudo-intellectualism," he quickly develops an interest while her affair with Yale becomes more intense.

Deciding to end the affair and stick with his marriage to Emily, Yale and his mistress Mary split up around the same time Isaac quits his TV job to write a novel and feels mixed emotions towards Tracy. Isaac and Mary hook-up eventually, though, causing something of a chain reaction that spurs all the characters to re-evaluate romantic happiness.

While I managed to write an outline, Manhattan is almost plotless. It's made unforgettable by its imagery, witty dialogue, and character interactions that ring both painfully and hilariously true to life. One of the most famous sequences involves Isaac and Mary walking through a planetary museum while discussing the complexities of their love lives. Gordon Willis's black & white cinematography captures the two forming a more and more intimate bond as they walk amongst large reconstructions of the galaxies. Later Isaac tells her that he wanted to throw her down on the lunar surface and commit "interstellar perversions." Another unforgettable moment occurs early on in the film when in a carefree and miserable mood, Isaac makes subtle jabs at a group of intellectuals who praise a New York literary magazine for writing a "devastating satire" on a group of local neo-Nazis. Isaac suggests that bricks and baseball bats might be a more affective means of combat.

Manhattan is essentially about the behavior and analytical conversations people have while they are confused and in love. Punctuated with Gershwin-scored montages of romantic imagery against New York City's backdrop, the movie manages to feel like an original classic even if it's a bit brain-y and unconventional in its outlook on relationships. While anyone could make the case that Isaac's relationship with Tracy is inappropriate, Allen as the writer/director is not concerned with being judgmental. When the two characters share an ambiguous moment together in the final scene, it's pretty hard to argue that they aren't genuinely in love and get along together in ways few, so-called "conventional" couples can. The theme is further explored through Isaac's ex-wife Jill (this year's Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), who left Isaac to form a successful relationship with another woman.

Sadly, Allen considers Manhattan to be one of his minor films, and even went so far as to try to block its release. But viewing it now and considering his current marriage with an adopted step daughter, maybe it's fair to say that it hits too close to home--it certainly feels like a personal story we can all identify with on some level.


Manhattan was nominated for 2 Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Mariel Hemingway) and Best Original Screenplay.

Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 1:11pm
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