Woody Allen is Isaac, a 42-year old Manhattanite with a complicated love life that tugs him in every which way. His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is on the works of writing a book about their relationship, exposing every nook and cranny of his failures and inadequacies as a husband. Then there is Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), whom Isaac is currently dating. Tracy is beautiful, unswervingly adores Isaac, but unfortunately still has to do homework. Tracy is only 17-years old. Then one day, Mary (Diane Keaton) enters Isaac’s world through an introduction from one of his friends, Yale (Michael Murphy). Mary is Yale’s mistress, but Isaac is utterly repulsed by her radiating self-confidence. He describes her as “overbearing and cerebral” with nothing to say but “pseudo-intellectual garbage”. Mary, with her maturity and highbrowed shrewdness, is almost the exact opposite of Tracy, but of course Isaac slowly falls for his friend’s lover.
What is Isaac to do with his life? In his little world, faced with divorce, adultery and heartbreaks, it is hard not to lose one’s faith in humanity.
Like other Woody Allen movies, the basic elements are the same; an older man falling for a younger woman (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”, “Hannah and Her Sisters”), a failing marriage leading to adultery (“Husbands and Wives”, “Mighty Aphrodite”), and the complicated dance of dating (“Annie Hall”). Allen might tread and re-tread over the same grounds, but his films are anything but indistinguishable. His genius lies in the fact that he can make his films look fresh by giving it a different spin.
With that said, “Manhattan” unsurprisingly touches on the same themes. Although it might not be Allen’s funniest or most heart-breaking film, “Manhattan” exhibits the true essence of an Allen film – all heart, wit and soul. Unlike his other films, “Manhattan” is perfectly edited, and there is nothing superfluous to cloud this masterpiece. Allen’s storytelling is as taut as it will ever be.
However, in addition to the fascinating characters of Isaac, Mary, Tracy and Yale, the film’s real shining star is Manhattan. Allen’s camera work and a fitting Gershwin soundtrack bring life and exuberance to this New York City borough, which becomes a central character in the film. Isaac’s world is but a drop in Manhattan’s bustling bucket, and Allen pays his homage to it by making “Manhattan” one of the best looking films I have seen in a while. His love for Manhattan emanates from the screen with each shot. And just as Robert Doisneau’s black and white photographs of couples kissing in Paris, Allen’s black and white “Manhattan” achieves the same sense of romanticism and optimism. From its opening scenes to its closing shots, “Manhattan” would make for a great coffee table book.
Diane Keaton, who is always excellent in any Allen movie, is wonderful as Mary. Her character might not be as charming as Annie Hall, but Keaton makes all the difference and gives a memorable performance. Meryl Streep, probably my favorite actress of all time, also gives a fantastic supporting role as Isaac’s antagonistic ex. However, it is Mariel Hemingway’s grounded performance as Tracy that is remarkable; good enough to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Her character is not a caricature of a bubbly dim-witted teenager, but of a rather intelligent young woman. She is not experienced with the ways of the world, but her sincerity serves her well. And then of course, there is Woody Allen. A lot of people fault him for playing the same type of character in all of his movies (the neurotic Jewish New Yorker), but I love him for it. As long as he keeps dishing out witty lines, more power to him.
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