Manhattan (1979) | Review by Stanley Kauffmann

Manhattan is a faulty film, but it’s moderately amusing
Manhattan (1979) Woody Allen and Diane Keaton


by Stanley Kauffmann

The chief impediment of Manhattan is the hype. It’s as if the media had been braiding laurel wreaths in advance, hoping for a minimal excuse to hail Woody Allen, as if they badly needed an American film-maker to garland, especially since their last genius, Robert Altman, is in disarray. The media’s nature abhors a vacuum, and Allen has in fact given them a bit more than a minimal excuse to fill the genius-vacancy. Manhattan is a faulty film, but it’s moderately amusing; and, since it’s back on the Allen track, inevitably it’s an improvement over Interiors, that tour of the Ingmar Bergman Room at Madame Tussaud’s. (By the way, Interiors is now being explained, with the usual ex post facto excuse for sententious failures, as misunderstood wit!) This new film, which doesn’t have quite as much flexibility and freshness as Annie Hall, has been exalted because the media, though now flashily hip, still live as much as they ever did by saying yes.

One aspect of Manhattan is especially lucky or canny. Even those who are outside the metropolitan area know that there is a big “I Love New York” campaign going on, home-town boosterism in print and on televi­sion, and certainly the whole world knows about the things that made the campaign necessary—the financial and crime troubles. Allen’s film sings Mannahatta as devotedly as, if more reedily than, Walt Whitman did. Allen clearly does love this inexhaustible city, and he gives his reasons in a range of rich settings. Much of the action is seen in middle-distance shots so that the story and the place get almost equal play. The cinematography by Gordon Willis is in adoring black and white, like a soft version of Andreas Feininger’s Manhattan photography. And the romance is sealed with a sound track of superb Gershwin tunes—written in a quite different New York—lushly arranged and played by two, count ’em two, symphony orchestras. (Not simultaneously.) In Allen’s New York there is no litter-strewn street, no doorway drug-peddler or side­walk-stretched drunk, no security-frantic apartment house, no disgust­ing subway car. It’s the New York of the well-heeled swinger, a selected menu of fun, youth, pretended youth, quaint shopping, many amuse­ments and sex.

But conceding the romance, which is one artistic option, and en­during the hype, which like Iago’s purse belongs to Allen this year, one must still ask: What is at the center? Allen wrote the script with, again, Marshall Brickman. It’s about a television writer (Allen) who quits his job in revulsion. He is divorced from Meryl Streep, who left him for another woman and is now writing a frank book about their marriage. (Check off two current issues.) He is having an affair with Mariel Hemingway, a seventeen-year-old girl (another issue—teenage sex), who wants to go to London to study acting. He encourages her to go because he has fallen for Diane Keaton, who is having an affair with Allen’s married friend Michael Murphy. Keaton breaks with Murphy because she feels there’s no future in it, then Allen makes his move for her. Eventually Murphy gets Keaton to return, and Allen hurries back to Hemingway, now eighteen, to try to keep her from leaving for London.

Somewhere in this mildly interesting, meandering script was an at­tempt to write a serious comedy about a man trying to live by moral principles in a world of gratification-as-ethics. But the film is so anxious to stay cool, with every coolant that comes along, that the theme is lost. Allen quits his television job, virtuous like so many others who have quit television jobs virtuously—only after making money at it for years. The commercialism-idealism tussle used to be a big subject in American fiction—The Hucksters and a rash of novels about working for Time— but it usually entailed some sacrifice. For Allen, it means only moving to a smaller but quite nice apartment and continuing to live just as before. And how does his morality appear otherwise? True, he makes no play for Keaton until she splits with Murphy, but that is more wisdom than restraint; and as soon as she leaves him, he races back to interfere with Hemingway’s future in order to gratify himself. He might even have succeeded, she tells him, if she weren’t on her way to the airport. Through the film Allen is accused of trying to play God, of being a moral arbiter, but it’s Hemingway who has to set him straight and tell him to have faith in people. This adolescent comes off as the strongest person morally in the picture. (And I’m waiting for someone to tell us that this was the point.)

The sharper comment on our time is that this wispy, latter-day facsim­ile of a 1940s moral protagonist has been accepted as a strong moral champion for today.

No Allen script except Interiors is bereft of funny lines. Manhattan has fewer than Annie Hall, but there are some. (Just one sample. Allen, riding in cab with girl: “You’re so beautiful I can’t keep my eyes on the meter.”) And there is plenty of current custom and chit-chat, of Manhat­tan travelogue. Allen is proud of this. “I’d like to think,” he has said, “that a hundred years from now, if people see the picture, they will learn something about what life in the city was like in the 1970s.” This boast always makes me nervous. The first time I heard it was from Faith Baldwin, already forgotten but not long ago the queen of popular-maga­zine romancers. How would it have been possible to write and shoot Manhattan and not get customs and landscape into it? To praise a work for those elements is about as rock-bottom as one can go. The city of Singapore and its customs are integrated into Peter Bogdanovich’s otiose and odious Saint Jack.

As for Allen’s performance, again it has his recently acquired negative virtue of avoiding physical comedy. Again his personality and looks are excused on the ground that one often sees attractive women with unat­tractive men. But this excuse is one more of the current confusions between life and art. On the screen, with the requirements of fulfillment within the film’s dimensions, Allen is insufficient as actor and person to make either his performance or his attractiveness convincing. The same role in the same script performed by, say, Dustin Hoffman would have been immeasurably stronger. But Allen isn’t interested in that kind of strength: he wants a kind of twinning between his work and himself. Thus he has to bear the charge of projecting fantasies. Frank Sinatra, in his later films, always included at least one scene in which he beat up a man bigger than he is. Maybe he also did this in life; I don’t know. Maybe Allen is a whiz with women off screen; I don’t know. But on screen the Sinatra-Allen scenes are not credible.

The rest of the cast is mediocre to poor. Michael Murphy’s acting is always like well-chosen wallpaper: it fills the space without attracting attention. Meryl Streep, gold hair a banner, does all that can be done with a small, virtually unwritten part. Hemingway, who looks like Grandfather Ernest feminized, is dull. And Diane Keaton gives us one more go-round of her crazy mixed-up New York girl, broken sentences and all. It’s not acting, it’s a routine. The only difference this time is the hair-do; this time it’s frizzy, and, simian-like, covers her brow. And this time the photography—particularly at a concert—shows that, for her, the hourglass is running.

But beneath the hype, and possibly one source of it, is another factor in the success of Manhattan. It satisfies a contemporary hunger for art as mimicry. Realism, which began long ago as a means of getting to truth, has degenerated into reproduction. All around us, in theater and film and television, the height of praise—obvious fantasy aside—is that a piece or a performance is indistinguishable from the world that borders it. Recog­nition, which used to be only an underpinning of realism, has become the center. The whole transformative function of art, the move toward perception and extension and criticism, has been smothered in the manu­facture of mere mirrors. Allen’s film leaks onto the screen indistinguisha­ble in texture or depth from the life in the lines outside the box office, and the fact that, after the long wait, the audience can actually see itself up there makes it ecstatic. Hollywood used to cosmeticize lives; now Allen, along with others, reproduces lives mimetically, altering them only insofar as he gives his characters somewhat wittier dialogue, gives them the lines that some of them can, in life, only think of when the party is over.

What’s missing under this, what’s missing under Allen’s highly salable self-deprecation, is any true sense of dissatisfaction. Allen’s mode, be­cause it lacks valid critical or satirical edge (which Jules Feiffer, at his best, still has), is basically a version of self-love. And self-love, wrapped in awareness, is the prime marketable product these days. In Allen’s hands, realism has turned from compassionate criticism to stroking. What George M. Cohan did with the Stars and Stripes in 1919, Allen is doing with neurosis in 1979: waving it, telling us that as long as we’re proud of it, we’re all pretty damned OK. That’s the real romance of Manhattan.

The New Republic, May 19, 1979


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