Friday, August 27, 2010
Slipping Into A Mad Obsession
Woody Allen has apparently made it into the press again for saying how he can’t afford to make his films in New York anymore. Whatever the absolute truth there is in this statement is something I’m not going to look into but it doesn’t seem to be anything different from what he’s said in the past about the current realities of where he gets his financing (last year’s New York-set WHATEVER WORKS excepted). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I think we’re fortunate to still be getting new Woody Allen films and the past several years of his European excursion has possibly served as a true creative shot in the arm. CASSANDRA’S DREAM was an unfortunate misfire but SCOOP had its pleasures and even just thinking about VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA makes me want to stop everything to watch it again right now. The world has changed since Woody was at the top of the heap, that fact certainly cannot be ignored. And, from what I understand, New York has changed as well and maybe even there people wouldn’t line up at the Beekman or the Paris or wherever in a blizzard on opening day like they used to anymore. His August 1993 comedy MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY came during a particularly turbulent period in his personal life with the public collapse of his relationship with Mia Farrow (who originally would of course have starred opposite Woody here) and his subsequent marriage to her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. If it wasn’t for these events it would be easier to read this film as a gentle comic chaser to the bitter, brilliant HUSBANDS AND WIVES from the previous fall (just as SCOOP played as the comic response to the much more serious MATCH POINT just a few years ago) with the equivalent female lead in each film asking the character played by Woody Allen similar questions about the state of their relationship. But MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY easily stands by itself as well as a genuinely funny piece of work, an extremely rewarding entry to revisit years later that plays light and engaging throughout. Even Pauline Kael liked it, if memory serves, though more as a comic look at marital strife than mystery movie and while I may not be any sort of expert on relationships, the interplay between the various characters does hold water as I get older as well as being extremely funny in scene after scene. It’s a delightful film.
Larry Lipton (Woody Allen) and wife Carol (Diane Keaton) are a normal New York Upper East Side couple, gliding towards middle age and they are happy together though Carol worries that the excitement is going out of their lives. Shortly after they meet their elderly neighbors Mr. and Mrs. House (played by MAD ABOUT YOU’s Jerry Adler and SEX AND THE CITY’s Lynn Cohen) Mrs. House suffers a fatal heart attack. When the couples next few encounters with Mr. House make Carol suspicious that something else has happened, like possibly murder, she begins to investigate much to Larry’s annoyance. Her investigation continues as more clues turn up as Carol drags their divorced friend Ted (Alan Alda), who possibly has eyes on Carol, into the case and Larry himself seeks out help from brilliant novelist Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston) who possibly has her own eyes on Larry.
MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY began its life way back in the 70s as a very early version of what ultimately became ANNIE HALL. When the director decided to revive the basic storyline years later he brought in original co-writer Marshall Brickman to collaborate on the script and the finished film plays as a breath of fresh air, moving away from whatever sour feel had been infusing Allen’s work (in both good and bad ways) over the past decade and the result feels like he’s finding something enjoyable in it all once again. The argument could even be made that the spirited feel this one gives off helped to pave the way for what I’ve always thought was a very strong, more fulfilling run of films he made through the mid-to-late 90s. The film also came during a point where Woody Allen briefly decided to shift his visual style to a more documentary approach, yanking the camera off the tripod and shooting handheld. This was much more noticeable with the documentary-oriented HUSBANDS AND WIVES and he received much more criticism for the absolute extremeness of that style at the time. Through the years I often thought that the approach which worked perfectly with that film’s more intense drama didn’t quite mesh with this lighter story (he used this style once again with the TV movie version of DON’T DRINK THE WATER, then returned to his usual process afterward). And while there’s maybe more of a genuine purpose to it with the prior film it’s hard not to notice how the handheld style has infused through so much of film and TV over the past seventeen years that looking at it now the style isn’t all that much different from any random episode of LAW & ORDER or 30 ROCK. Shooting handheld may not have been in vogue back in ’93 but it definitely gives an added level of energy to scenes throughout, whether the setup is just Allen and Keaton arguing or multiple people talking over each other in various restaurants. It may be one reason why MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY seems to have aged so nicely as a well-played, well-executed comedy with actors who know exactly what they’re doing and a story that keeps moving through each of its laughs.
Looking at it again, it really does work better as a marital comedy than a mystery. The requisite twists play fine within the context but aren’t anything earth-shaking and as sometimes happens with these things, multiple viewings allow one to gloss over the ‘plot’ by a certain point. It’s fair to say that it becomes more enjoyable to just pay attention to the story of this married couple mixed in with their friends, all trying to figure out just what the other person is thinking and feeling amidst their own rat-a-tat dialogue , hoping to somehow avoid winding up in a situation like the Houses. Keaton’s scenes with Alda who practically fawns all over her play as if he’s always trying to keep from going too far in their friendship play as an enjoyable contrast to Allen’s decidedly different rapport with the flirtatious Huston, who keeps things cool but occasionally slips a disarming phrase in there and there’s not a moment where I don’t enjoy spending time with these characters. It even provides a certain amount of depth to this fantasy of a middle-aged couple and their friends living their upscale New York life, arriving home late on a Saturday night with the next day’s papers, wanting to do nothing more than watch a Bob Hope movie on late night TV. From this carefree lifestyle comes getting mixed up in a potential murder plot which could very easily have come from some New Yorker-infused memories of that Bob Hope movie seen on late night TV maybe crossed with the viewing of DOUBLE INDEMNITY that the characters even go to see early on.
The nonstop patter between the leads is befitting for an screwy upper east side Nick and Nora pairing maybe without the martinis (there are a few wine bottles spotted throughout) and a few of the basics of the plot contains some definite nods to REAR WINDOW, complete with the occasional downpour, and even a little VERTIGO. In some ways it is ultimately a minor piece of work from Allen, almost feeling like a lark that he made with some friends to get his mind off things and that’s probably all it’s supposed to be but while it’s not one of his that I could see again literally any day of the week (you can guess a few of those titles) revisiting it every now has its own pleasures. It’s aged extremely well, considerably better than a few that for Allen probably weren’t so minor. And, fitting with its title, it uses the city very well from the streets and flea markets to the apartments and the tiny restaurants, giving it an energetic feel that infuses every scene with that camera shooting around everywhere. The big comic setpiece involving several tape recorders is ridiculous but very funny nevertheless and while the use of LADY FROM SHANGHAI in the climax may be a touch too obvious as these things go (“I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again!”) the nimbleness of how it plays recalls the feel of Woody’s short stories from long ago and considering how well it’s executed I’m not sure I’d want it any other way. Without getting into Woody’s own history a film like this also plays as one of the best possible endorsements for marriage, even making me wistfully imagine my own scenario of growing into middle age with certain women I know out there. Hey, I can dream.
We’ll never know how this would have played with Mia Farrow—maybe not quite as light on its feet—but probably because of all those ANNIE HALL memories Allen & Keaton go together so well onscreen that it becomes almost impossible to accept that they really haven’t been married all these years. The movie is about the two of them in every possible way and they play off beautifully in every single one of their scenes, with Woody seemingly more than happy to let Keaton go off on some sort of tangent in the middle of their dialogue and she couldn’t be more appealing. Naturally, he gets the screen for the final beat of the film which seems absolutely correct. Alan Alda plays his role completely relaxed as well (I could believe he’s playing himself here more than any other role in his career) and Anjelica Huston takes control of every one of her scenes just as her character does, infusing her cool, ultra-confident novelist with the right amount of self-awareness getting every guy in her sights to instantly fall for her. Jerry Adler is appropriately cagey as the neighbor in question so for a while we aren’t quite sure exactly what he’s up to up, Ron Rifkin and Joy Behar play a few of the Lipton’s friends who get mixed up in their scheme, Aida Turturro is briefly seen as a hotel clerk (spotting SOPRANOS actors in Woody films made in the years before that show is practically a pastime) and Zach Braff, not that I have any idea who that is, turns up in one scene as the son of the two leads. Years later Braff said in an interview, “When I look at that scene now, all I can see is the terror in my eyes.”
MANHATTAN MUDER MYSTERY opens with a rousing version of Bobby Short singing Cole Porter’s “I Happen To Like New York” and every scene of the movie feels like New York down to its very bones. With its doting on old movies and using Benny Goodman’s “Swing, Swing, Swing” on the soundtrack more than once it’s very much an exercise in nostalgia that clearly comes straight from Woody’s head. And now less than twenty years later, as Woody is still active though openly shooting elsewhere, the New York presented here feels like a little piece of nostalgia as well. The town may be as vibrant as ever but even though I haven’t been there for a few years I’m aware that it changes. Everything changes. Except, of course, for the font Woody Allen uses. Which is probably the way it should be. A film like this is a lovely reminder of the celluloid-infused New York that only he could give us.
“Hello, Mr. House? This is Larry Lipton. I’ve got a package I think you’re gonna want. Of course it’s gonna cost you $200,000 in small, unmarked bills. Or large marked ones, if you want to go that route.”