Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2012)
Call it a case of foreshadowing: when Woody Allen made Manhattan - part of which relates the romantic relationship of 42-year-old Isaac (Allen) and 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) - who knew the film would so strongly predict his own future? Although his partnership with stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn almost killed his career, at least the guy can say he warned us.
Granted, the romance in Manhattan lacks the pseudo-incestuous aspects of his real-life affair, but the kind of relationship depicted in the filmnonetheless seemed pretty tawdry. It didn't quite enter Lolita territory, but it appeared fairly risqué in any case.
Actually, this May-December romance forms a fairly small part of Manhattan. The movie concerns itself with Isaac's relationships - current and past - and places all of the events against the "majestic" backdrop on New York City. Two disclaimers need to appear here. First, I never have been wild about “The Big Apple”. I don’t hate the city like I used to, but I still don’t find myself fond of the place, so I clearly don’t share Allen’s viewpoint.
Second disclaimer: I have a like-hate relationship with Allen’s work. At his best, he can be insightful and witty. At his worst, he tends to be smug, condescending and pretentious.
And that’s the side that tends to be on display in Manhattan; though he’d achieve much higher “highs” in terms of elitist arrogance in later years, I think Manhattan marks his first strong move in that direction.
Though my memory is far from perfect, I recall that Manhattan didn't receive terribly strong reviews. It followed the mild debacle that was 1978's Interios, Allen's first attempt to make a "serious" film.
Commercially and critically, Allen eached his peak with 1977's Annie Hall, and Interiors clearly marked his attempt to branch out from the old tried and true.
It didn't work, as I don't recall a welcome reaction from critics or audiences. Manhattan was a mild retrenching for Allen; he went back to more comedic material, but it definitely seemed more serious than his prior efforts. Annie Hall covers similar territory but appears lighter in tone and offers broader comedy than the semi-introspective Manhattan.
Annie Hall is also a better-focused and more interesting film. After I watched Manhattan, I surveyed a number of reviews that discussed it "deep insights" and how it explores human nature, and my reaction was: huh? If anything, Manhattan seems much more shallow than Allen's prior work.
I rarely felt the slightest clue as to what made these characters tick. Allen's Isaac is yet another variation on himself: neurotic, funny, smart, insecure. However, he felt like a less-full personality than Annie Hall's Alvy and the waffling he displays throughout the film - since he can't decide which romantic path to take – appeared baffling to me; I never grasped what concerns influenced him.
Diane Keaton plays one of Isaac's women, the pretentious and annoying Mary. Though I often don't like Keaton, I thought she gave an excellent performance as Annie Hall; Keaton created a full-blooded, realistic character, something she fails to do here. Mary is just a batch of insecurities in search of a man. Her early scenes are great, as know-it-all Mary deflates Isaac's ego in a museum. However, after that, Mary becomes just another generic personality with little life.
As Isaac's other active romantic interest - teenybopper Tracy - Hemingway is a complete disaster. Frankly, I don't find her to be very attractive; from her flat chest to her gruff face, Hemingway is one of the least feminine women around, and she always reminded me of an East German swimmer.
However, since beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, I'll ignore my visual preferences and examine her performance: a bottle of steroids downed by any of those Communist-bloc athletes could display more personality and emotion. To call Hemingway "flat" is to insult pancakes. Put bluntly, she stinks, and she causes any and all of her scenes to collapse.
Meryl Streep turns up in a one-note turn as Isaac's ex-wife Jill. Perhaps some omitted scenes would’ve fleshed out the character, but Streep simply comes across as hostile and bitter here, and the role seems to largely waste her formidable talents. (By the way, does anyone else suspect Jill inspired the "Carol" character on Friends? Jane Sibbett resembles this film's Streep, and the scenario depicted sure looks a lot like the fate faced by the TV show's Ross.)
Despite my many criticisms, Manhattan is not a bad film, and I don't mind watching it. However, it's a relatively dull and unfunny one, especially from Allen. No, I'm not his biggest fan, but I can admit when he produces good work.
Manhattan has built a strong reputation over the years, but the reasoning for this frankly eludes me. At its best, it provides a moderately witty and interesting view of relationships, but it lacks the truth and honesty of Annie Hall. In Manhattan, we see Woody Allen take himself too seriously, but not consider the subject matter seriously enough.