Too many people today look at Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan” for evidence of the filmmaker’s alleged perversions. After all, his character in the film is a 42-year-old having a relationship with a 17-year-old girl played by Mariel Hemingway – and wouldn’t logic dictate that everything Allen does on screen is autobiographical?
In reality, this aspect of “Manhattan” is the least troubling, if only because of Allen’s epicene persona offers nothing in the way of sexual manipulation or aggression and Hemingway’s sing-song line-readings and bland presence gives the impression of a girl who is absent from her surroundings. Their coupling is the least credible and least emotionally satisfactory aspect of the film, and when they are together on screen there is little in the way of “Ick” and too much in the way of “Zzzzz.”
The real problem with “Manhattan” is that it feels like a mean-spirited parody of Allen’s “Annie Hall,” with similar themes angrily recycled until they become numbingly sour. Once again, Allen is a television comedy writer who deplores his work and aches to be taken seriously as a writer. And, yet again, he has unpleasant residue from an earlier marriage – in this case, his wife (Meryl Streep) left him for a woman and has penned a book that plumbs the details of their failed union. There is also another tall and successful sidekick, in this case Yale (Michael Murphy), who primarily serves as the straight man to Allen’s one-liners and wisecracking. And as with “Annie Hall,” the central character is a shabby Pygmalion whose Galatea leaves him in vague pursuit of a show business future.
There is one new aspect in “Manhattan” that came to define least appealing tenet of Allen’s output: the demanding, emotionally needy, exasperating woman who effectively poisons whatever warmth and love has existed around her. Here, it is played by Diane Keaton, who at least manages to inject a micro-level of eccentric charm into a badly-written character.
Much of the joy of “Annie Hall” involved Allen’s Groucho-level puncturing of the intellectual pretensions of New York’s pedantic sophisticates. In “Manhattan,” Allen becomes what he hated in the earlier film – endless literary and cultural references pepper the conversation but add little spice in way of humor or irony, creating an environment of smarty-pants intellectuals whose conversation fails to clothes their emotional shallowness. A running gag has Keaton referring to her character’s Philadelphia roots voicing mock outrage with an intellectual affront – it never generates a laugh, no matter how often she repeats the line. Ultimately, the characters are bogged down by their selfishness and immaturity – it is impossible to be intrigued with their neuroses because they are so damn unlikable.
“Manhattan” has been critically praised for Gordon Willis’ widescreen black-and-white cinematography and Allen’s use of George Gershwin’s music to capture the essence of the fabled borough. But at the end of the film, one has to ask: whose Manhattan is it? Allen and his characters parade around as if they own the place, but in reality their whining and posturing makes them seem like dreary shadows on the sidelines of a greater urban drama. They are, ultimately, the one thing that Manhattan is not: boring.