Somehow Woody Allen got the reputation of constantly populating his films with characters that are intelligent, elitist and wealthy. He has been criticized for not seeing how his characters are annoyingly pretentious and self-absorbed. They speak of their romantic melodramas and artistic failings as if they are the first to experience them. Allen’s characters experienced the malaise of the wealthy, tone-deaf to the “real problems” of the world.
But what critics of Woody Allen don’t understand is that Allen himself agrees. Many of these characters are written with a slight satirical slant. Their intellectual musings on art and life are supposed to sound self-congratulatory. I think what makes Woody Allen such a brilliant writer is that these characters are flawed yet somehow endearing (or at least sympathetic).
MANHATTAN is full of people who make bad decisions and like to hear themselves talk about making bad decisions, and Allen’s Oscar nominated screenplay brings depth and insight into these characters. At first glance, however, they seem to be the typically self-centered yuppie types. Yet, it is through romantic matches and mismatches that Allen displays hidden depth to his characters. We learn a lot about his characters by how they react to losing one partner and gaining another.
At its core, MANHATTAN is a love pentagon between Ike (Woody Allen), Tracy (Oscar nominee Mariel Hemingway), Mary (Diane Keaton), Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne). Ike is dating Tracy but falls for Mary who is having an affair with Yale who is married to Emily. That’s really the extent of the plot. This is the kind of romantic ensemble-driven plot that Woody Allen would go on to use a few times in his career, like in HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY.
The title of the film is MANHATTAN so I often wonder if these five characters (seven if you include Meryl Streep and Wallace Shawn in their extended cameos) are supposed to represent typical upper class Manhattan-dwellers. I’m sure, however, that if I were to ask Woody Allen, he’d say he just likes to name his films after cities because it’s easier (Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Hollywood and even Manhattan a second time have been name-dropped in Allen titles).
A lot has been said about Tracy being 17 years old. Many people have read the Ike-Tracy relationship as foreshadowing of Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn or at least Allen attempting to normalize dating someone at least 20 years his junior. Of course, this issue has been brought up many times in Woody Allen’s career (his latest film, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT features a romance between 20-something Emma Stone and 50-something Colin Firth).
Say what you will about Tracy’s age but she is presented as the most reasonable, mature and levelheaded of the main cast. Well, maybe Emily is also all of those things but she gets little development. Tracy’s responses to her situation are way more adult than Mary’s or Yale’s. Allen presents Tracy as an ironic counterpart to the older members of the cast; here you have several adults, one named after one of the top universities in the country, acting like teenagers and an actual teenager who is wise beyond her years.
MANHATTAN’s ending is bittersweet; it’s hopeful but not exactly happy. It would have been so easy for Allen to pair off Ike and Mary together in the end because it is difficult to ignore Allen and Keaton’s natural, vibrant chemistry as (also displayed in ANNIE HALL, LOVE & DEATH, PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, SLEEPER and MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY). But Allen’s view of romance is not easy. Love is messy and confusing; lovers are easy to come by but hard to let go. Perhaps that is why I hesitate to label many of Allen’s romances as true romantic-comedies. Their narratives are much more complicated than the standard boy-meets-girl formula.
It is difficult to talk about MANHATTAN without mentioning the big elephant in the room: Woody Allen’s very public loathing of the film. The story goes that he promised United Artists, the distribution company, that he would direct his next film for free if they promised not to release it. I’ll never understand why Woody Allen hates MANHATTAN so much. But I am ever so glad that United Artists didn’t listen to him. If they had, we would have lost Gordon Willis’ stunning cinematography and the jazzy romantic Gershwin score. We would have lost Diane Keaton’s brilliantly neurotic performance and Allen’s own sensitively funny one. My respects to Mr. Allen but he is completely utterly wrong about this one.