Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
With each successive decade, Woody Allen becomes a less significant filmmaker. The Seventies saw him at his most popular and also garnered him the most critical respect with flicks like Manhattan, Love and Death and the Best Picture winning Annie Hall. The Eighties brought less acclaim and financial reward, but for my money, that era was his best, as he offered some warm and compelling efforts such as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and Radio Days. He also gained critical approval with flicks such as Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
During the Nineties, however, the Woodmanís output became much more problematic. The decade started poorly with the forced and inane fairy tale of Alice, and matters didnít improve much from there. Allen found himself tabloid fodder when he broke up with longtime partner Mia Farrow and connected with his stepdaughter; a mighty cry of ďewww!Ē could be heard across the land.
I donít know how much this affected the box office receipts of Allen flicks; he hadnít been a commercial success for many years anyway, as most of his crowd remained restricted to a small mass of stalwarts. Nonetheless, it couldnít have helped, and I also believe that his personal situation affected his output as a filmmaker, for the Nineties showed some of his weakest efforts.
Admittedly, this isnít a perfect thesis, as a lot of his pre-split work also really stunk; for example, flicks like September and Another Woman came during his prime years with Farrow, and they were absolutely terrible. Nonetheless, the post-Farrow era seemed marked by distinct lack of coherence. Allen tried a number of different genres during that period, in an apparent attempt to distract audiences from his personal life via an ever-changing roster of improbable features.
In 1993ís Manhattan Murder Mystery, Allen doesnít stray too far from his neurotic city-loving roots, but the tale does broaden beyond the usual character piece. Here we find the long-married couple of Larry (Allen) and Carol (Diane Keaton) Lipton. Their marriage seems pleasant but bland after so many years together, and their differing paths become clearer when an unusual event occurs. Recently they met Paul (Jerry Adler) and Lillian (Lynn Cohen) House, an older couple who live across the hall. They create a minor friendship but soon catastrophe strikes when Lillian suddenly dies.
Though deemed a result of natural causes, the death seems somewhat suspicious, and Carol latches onto the inconsistencies. She launches an amateur investigation, and the more she examines, the deeper the mystery becomes. Larry wants no part of it, but friend Ted (Alan Alda) turns into her accomplice as he encourages the drama.
This area of the film serves another purpose, as it intensifies the relationship between Carol and Ted. Clearly heís smitten with her, and given the moribund state of her connection with Larry, she seems moderately willing to return the affection. Though they avoid physical entanglement, their emotional involvement constitutes a threat to the marriage.
As the film progresses, we watch the two-bit investigation into Lillianís death and also see how the love triangle develops. Larry gets involved in matters as well, mainly to try to save his marriage. Many plot twists occur to further the tangled criminal web, though Allen keeps matters mysterious for the most part; the true nature of the potential killing doesnít resolve until the end.
In that regard, Allen did a good job with Murder. He made the story expand in such a way that we were never sure if a crime actually occurred or if this was all just part of a midlife crisis. Actually, Allen tipped his hand, as it became very clear that something nasty happened. However, the nature of the activity remained in doubt.
Truthfully, I suspected through much of the movie that the apparent misdeeds were all orchestrated as part of an elaborate hoax. Much of Murder reminded me of David Fincherís The Game; so many of the actions seemed coincidental, and the package was wrapped so neatly that the events appeared to be set up by another party.
Iíll spare you the suspense: Murder wasnít a precursor of The Game. I wonít reveal the nature of the activities, but they definitely werenít preprogrammed as a way to inject some life into the relationship of Larry and Carol.
While a fairly enjoyable flick, Murder suffered due to its dual nature. The movie wanted to be both a suspenseful mystery as well as a character drama, and neither side of the equation succeeded terribly well. The emphasis on the murder investigation meant that we learned less about the participants than we might have liked; they all got decent exposition but not enough to make them really come to life.
However, the characters occupied enough screen time to detract from the tension. Murder offered a fairly comic mystery, and it could be moderately witty and entertaining at times. Nonetheless, its attempts to serve both masters didnít really work. The participants were likeable but not very engaging, and the mystery felt like an afterthought at times.
I liked the path Allen took, as he kept us in the dark about the true nature of the flick; Manhattan Murder Mystery had the potential to offer a succinct examination of the midlife point of a longtime relationship. However, the movie simply seemed somewhat bland and uninvolving. I didnít mind the time I spent with it, but I didnít think much of it either. Compared to some of the dreck Allen produced in the same era, Murder looked strong, but it remains mediocre for the most part.