Manhattan (1979)


(director/writer: Woody Allen; screenwriter: Marshall Brickman; cinematographer: Gordon Willis; editor: Susan E. Morse; music: George Gershwin; cast: Woody Allen (Isaac Davis), Diane Keaton (Mary Wilke), Michael Murphy (Yale), Mariel Hemingway (Tracy), Meryl Streep (Jill), Anne Byrne (Emily); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Charles H. Joffe; MGM Home Entertainment; 1979)
“One of Woody’s more perceptive films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Woody Allen’s (“Annie Hall”/”Interiors”/”Zelig”) fantasy film is a self-critical examination of his romantic immaturity, a study in the volatility in relationships and a valentine to Manhattan (romanticizing about such Big Apple landmark sites as Central Park, the Russian Tea Room, the Hayden Planetarium, the Guggenheim and the Whitney). It’s a Woody fan base fave but not as appealing to his critics, who chide him for making Gotham the grounds only for WASPs and Jews while leaving out black characters and for being an intellectual poser. Marshall Brickman cowrites it with Woody. I thought it was one of Woody’s more perceptive films, with a crisp and heady dialogue, great visuals to match the story and a biting take on relationships that had an acerbic honesty to it that Woody was never able to capture again with the same magnitude.

The black-and-white film opens with a wonderful Gershwin-scored “Rhapsody in Blue” skyline montage and segues to the chic Elaine’s, where Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), a neurotic twice-divorced Jewish 42-year-old successful well-off TV comedy writer of sitcoms living in Manhattan, is sitting at a table with his date, the innocent idolizing 17-year-old high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and his old insecure married friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne). Yale is seeing the neurotic Mary (Diane Keaton) on the side, but Woody has also fallen in love with her when Yale introduces him to the Radcliffe grad and journalist during a museum meeting. Even though Mary dissed all Isaac’s favorite writers, she won him over when she trumped that by praising his banal sitcom show. Isaac also has to deal with his monstrous second ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep), who left him for another woman, is raising their son and has written a hostile memoir of their marriage. In the end, Isaac chases after Tracy after ditching her for the thirtysomething similar-minded pseudo-intellectual Mary. Isaac finds that the sincere Tracy, the only one of his acquaintances not seeing a shrink, is off to London for a six-month stay to study, and it ends with the possibility that when she returns they might see each other again.

Manhattan is a big city movie that’s funny, insightful, upsetting and emotionally draining. Woody manages to hit on all cylinders from the invigorating score, to the sharp dialogue, and to the intimate city compositions visually presented. Its scenario is as elegant as Woody made the city, and still stands as one of the more interesting films of the 1970s.