By Jack McCormack (London, England)
Public discourse has wavered on Woody Allen in recent years, since the less than amicable end of his relationship with Mia Farrow and subsequent marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s adopted daughter. Farrow claimed Woody sexually abused her daughter, Dylan, though this was later refuted by Farrow’s son. Woody Allen has viciously denied these allegations.
Now, it may seem a little crass to begin a review of one of Allen’s great films in this manner, but as I re-watched Manhattan recently, I could not stop thinking about it. Manhattan is about the dual relationships Allen’s character, Isaac, has. One is with 17 year-old Tracy (Hemingway), who Isaac sees as loving yet fundamentally immature, and another with cultural snob, and exquisite character, Mary Wilkie (Keaton). The film is brilliantly paced, as the three, along with Isaac’s friend Yale (Murphy) and ex-wife (Streep) interlink and set Isaac up for his comedic downfall.
The film is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Gordon Willis deserving particular praise. The iconic shot of Isaac and Mary sat watching the lights on Queensboro Bridge as they go out, is particularly striking, of course, but there are so many wonderful and memorable frames. Isaac and Mary walking through a night-time observatory and the shot of Isaac and Tracy in their dark apartment as they grow apart were two that delighted me in particular.
The movie is also wonderfully scored with the New York Philharmonic’s rousing interpretations of George Gershwin becoming seminal in the years gone by. Allen was inspired to make the film when listening to the soundtrack; he thought it sounded like “this would be a beautiful thing to make … a movie in black and white … a romantic movie.” He was not wrong.
And yet, I cannot stop worrying about that relationship between Tracy and Isaac. A relationship with a 17 year-old is not illegal, but it certainly does feel a little odd. The characters in the movie suggest as much. There is a scene in which Isaac and Tracy lay in bed next to one another. There is minimal contact between them. Dylan Farrow claimed that Allen made her sleep in a bed next to him, though would not engage with her physically. I want to believe in Allen, but there is something I found repugnant about these scenes. We should, of course, divorce reality from art and realise that Isaac’s love of younger women proves to be his downfall. Allen writes Isaac with a knowing he should be better, and poking fun at Isaac’s perversion is something the movie plays with. But perversions are kind of like farts. Your own are tolerable and can often delight, but someone else’s can really ruin an evening.
Manhattan is a hilariously funny movie. Allen shines in every comedic sense, with great masters of filmic comedy having influenced the film. There are senses of Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. There are puns, high-brow jokes, pull-backs, wit and humorous character development. I was puzzled, then, as to whether we are supposed to like Isaac. He is charming and affable and funny, but just seems too odd at times. He is a perennial underdog, but I felt no sympathy for him.
The finale of the film sees Isaac realise that he should be with Tracy and after chasing her down, she proves to be the most mature of all the characters throughout the film. This is another comedic technique, as we realise the irony in Isaac’s attempts at love and their impending failure. Isaac/ Allen, in the final shot, gives a meaningful look to the camera. I take it this look is intended to humorously signify to the audience the lack of luck Isaac’s character has experienced in losing out twice, but it just felt slimy and overly-cocky to me.
I enjoyed Manhattan. I did. It is funny and charming and warm in all the right places. But there is a fart in the background of this picture. Whether you can smell it or not.