Manhattan (1979)


I thought I could recapture the magic. One early morning, on my commute, I turned on the neurotic mindset and listened to “Rhapsody in Blue.” I looked around, imbibed the city by the sunrise. It was my way to duplicate the movie’s intro. You know … Woody Allen’s fickle narration. George Gershwin’s pulsating music. Glimpses of New York City in black and white.

Suddenly, it became crowded. I was pushed and shoved. I smelled coffee breath from one guy and the stink of cologne from another. The majestic view vanished as the train descended underground. On a prolonged subway delay, the iPod ran out of battery. All I had left, in full blast, was the paranoia of being late to work.

Lesson learned. I’ll just watch the movie next time. New York, that “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” is too wild to tame. And for that matter, so is the plot to “Manhattan.” It is a romantic comedy eating from a template that’s way older than the customary boy-meets-girl: it’s old man meets girl.

Woody Allen plays Isaac Davis, a 42 year-old writer who dates a sweet 17-year-old named Tracey (Mariel Hemingway). This should be a fantasy come true, but Isaac is not serious about his youthful mate. He wants to pursue an older woman named Mary (Diane Keaton). Well yes, Mary (from Philadelphia) is the current mistress of his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) and an intellectual snob, unimpressed by iconic heroes Isaac idolizes. But my God, she is super smart and attractive despite the mental baggage. They could be a perfect pair; Isaac has a suitcase of neurosis to match.

“Manhattan” was my first Woody Allen movie. His unique brand of comedy captivated me. I actually “got” it. I kept up with its rhythm and died repeatedly from the execution of wit. How stimulating was it to hear chatter about art, of ideas, of grandiose philosophies, of life and love. It’s like fireworks inside my head (to the tunes of Gershwin, of course). But then, a burst of realization scared me. Oh my God, I’m a weirdo. I can’t share this pleasure with family and friends. Woody Allen is an acquired taste, not to mention an ungainly sight. I’m not even going to wonder how he smells.

Even with the verbosity tuned out, the movie has more things to offer. The acting is dynamic and quirky. Woody Allen looks young here. He might look like Igor, but he’s full of vigor. Diane Keaton is hilarious as the button-pushing antagonist. Let’s face it, stuck-up people who like to bash in the open are just asking for it. But Keaton can be so verbally beguiling that she disarms my imaginary fist. Mariel Hemingway, as the teen lover, is almost alien in Allen’s universe. Her line delivery is soft and slow; her eyes in longing melancholy. Yet Hemingway’s indelible innocence is vital to the film’s success. Her calm, lightweight presence is what actually pulls the movie to the ground.

And what a ground it is! As photographed by Gordon Willis, “Manhattan” romanticizes its famed island through mesmerizing driving scenes, horse cab rides in Central Park, and still scenes overlooking the Hudson at dusk. The city itself does not say much; but its presence on the film is confidently loud.

Besides the obvious fact that it is the shooting location, I wondered as to why the movie is called “Manhattan.” I can easily separate the characters from the place, because frankly, I don’t know anybody from New York that talks or thinks like Isaac and Mary. But then I thought again and I realized – I do!

My friends and I small-talk about pop culture all the time. There is endless geeking out over celebrities, video games, sports, and TV shows. Look at movie blogs, where towering “Best Of” lists and shrines to actors and filmmakers are thoughtfully built. Not exactly different from Woody Allen yammering about Bergman, Groucho Marx, Picasso, or Gershwin, is it? These are minds populated with junk: lofty and grand. The head hides a crammed city – a Gotham of trivia and ideals.

Maybe I have recaptured the movie’s magic after all. I am in a New York state of mind.

Grade: A

Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, and Meryl Streep
Written by
Woody Allen
Marshall Brickman
Directed by
Woody Allen
Rated R

4 thoughts on “Manhattan (1979)

  1. Being a truly loyal Chicagoan, I can’t really identify with your sentimental connection to New York City, but I appreciate the way the movie paints a portrait of New York-lovers.

    This was a great review! I totally agree with you about being afraid to admit to people about liking Woody Allen, especially because he has this sort of creepy stigma about that most people jump to, despite the fact that his movies are decent. I think what I liked best about Manhattan, was, as you said, the amazing opening, but also the really amazingly realistic ending.

    • Hello Windy City. When I watched this movie, it really brought me back to that “weirdo” epiphany. I was young and self-conscious. But through the years, I learn that I might treasure more things than most people. I am just glad I am not missing out.

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