15 October 2009

54. Manhattan





The photo essay at the beginning, besides being beautiful, sets up (via voiceover) our character and setting: we're dealing with someone indecisive who idolizes intangible things, and he lives in and loves New York.

Now, the meat comes in the next scene. He's 42 and in a relationship with a 17 year old girl. This is played straight with little emphasis on it being illegal, and mostly focusing on him using their age difference to convince her that they should break up.

His best friend is having an affair. We met her at 15 minutes in, and she's the dissenting opinion. She slowly grows on him, and he gets with her. He crushes his teenage lover in a sofa fountain shop (an irony setting) and thus begins their short love affair.

But she's indecisive as well, as is the Yale, the man she was having an affair with. For the first time, Isaac wants to be with someone, but she doesn't want to be with him. And so, having no other options, he tries to return to the teenager, but she's off to London. And then we get a coda, a repeat of the beginning montage of beautiful New York.

It's actually more complex than my scant summary, but it is, like John Gardner said, "sophistication that lies beyond simplicity." It is a slight tale that is significant for being so contained.

Two main drawbacks about the writing: Allen's dialogue isn't ever as clever as he thinks it is, and even when it is, his punchlines never seem to fit the narrative and stick out like a stand-up comedian punching up a script. Also, the movie starts out with Isaac beginning a book. We see him quit his job impulsively to write the book, but the very idea of him finishing is absurd and it becomes a MacGuffin. Remember: gun in first act has to go off in the third act. And this one doesn't.

Two other drawbacks: Allen has thankfully learned, over time, that he shouldn't act. It's not that he's terrible (there's actually some subtle stuff going on in this movie, especially in the last scene, that I like), but he's relatively one-note and not nearly as charming as he imagines he is. The other thing is that he has Meryl Streep is his movie and hardly uses her. Inexcusable.

Besides the writing, the obvious thing to adore about this film is the cinematography. There's a lot to love here: the graceful dolly shots that allow the actors to do entire scenes in one shot, the amazing 2nd unit work that makes New York look delicious, the fact that when characters are moving apart they are always seen in close-up singles, the wide-angle deep-focus of the static shots. More specifically, look at the movement that's allowed when Isaac comes down the spiral stairs to see Tracy alone on the couch, reading under the light. She "lights up" his otherwise self-obsessed life and gives it a different meaning. Or watch Keaton and Allen in the planetarium, the lighting corresponding to their dialogue, sometimes bright when they are in sync, sometimes dim, backlit or in shadows when they are hesitating, and sometimes, courageously, completely dark.

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