MGM // 1979 // 96 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // July 26th, 2000
The World According to Isaac Davis:
Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we're just people. We're just human beings, you know? You think you're God.
Isaac: I...I gotta model myself after someone.
Party Guest: I finally had an orgasm and my doctor said it was the wrong kind.
Isaac: You had the wrong kind? I've never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.
Mary: I'm honest, whaddya want? I say what's on my mind and if you can't take it, well then f*** off!
Isaac: And I like the way you express yourself too y'know, its pithy yet degenerate. You get many dates?
Tracy: Let's fool around, it'll take your mind off of it.
Isaac: Hey, how many times a night can you, how, how often can you make love in an evening?
Tracy: Well, a lot.
Isaac: Yeah! I can tell that a lot. That's, well, a lot is my favorite number.
Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) leads a complicated life. He is 42, dating a 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and finding himself falling in love with the mistress of his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). Mary (Diane Keaton) is normally everything Isaac finds unattractive but still both of them find something there between them. With all this going on, Isaac continues to find himself unhappy with a lot of things in his life. He wants to write the great New York novel and feels that his job as the lead writer for a "Saturday Night Live"-style television show offers him no pleasure or satisfaction. To add insult to misery, he is being driven insane because ex-wife number two, Jill (Meryl Streep), who left Isaac for another woman, is writing a tell-all novel about their marriage and breakup, with the central point of embarrassment being the time Isaac tried to run his ex-wife's lover over with a car. Thinking that the grass is always greener somewhere else, Isaac quits his job, breaks things off with Tracy and pursues Mary after her breakup with the already married Yale.
It is from this basic plot that co-writer/director/star Woody Allen fashions his most mature, truthful and funniest film, Manhattan.
First a bit of personal history. I love Woody Allen movies. Watching the man's films as they span a time period of 31 years or so is to see one of America's greatest filmmakers find his voice as an artist. To me, it is exciting to go back and watch something from the early days of his career like Sleeper, and then sit down and view something more recent such as Mighty Aphrodite. Both are very funny movies, and it is clear that both came from the same mind, but both the voice telling the story and the skill involved is quite different. In the differences are the details and joys of discovery.
Here we have Manhattan, for me the Mt. Everest of Woody Allen pictures. Sometimes regarded simply as Annie Hall 2, it is instead, at least to my mind, a quantum leap in regard to style, craft and maturity of subject matter. Annie Hall, which won several Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, is a marvelous film but I have always felt that Allen took the same basic themes and made a much better movie with Manhattan. The pain that Woody Allen as Isaac Davis feels at the end of this movie has always been more poignant than what he goes through as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. The look on Allen's face at the end of Manhattan before he cuts to Gordon Willis' final skyline shot has always haunted me. Viewing the film again, it had the same effect.
This is not to say that all is doom and sadness in Manhattan. Far from it. The beginning of this decision has but a few of Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman's (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Lovesick, The Manhattan Project) verbal gems. There are plenty more where those came from. The jokes flow fast and furious here. This is one funny movie.
It is difficult to talk about Woody Allen movies and not talk about Allen the actor. It has never ceased to amaze me how some performers can work their entire careers and play basically the same persona. Certainly Allen ranks right up there with distinguished company such as Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields and the like. It's so easy to forget just how skillful a performer Allen is. How many actors can walk onto a film set and know exactly where people are going to laugh because they know the performer and the role he plays? Then imagine the surprise when this performer pulls something new or puts a different variation or spin on that character. Allen has done this for a long time now. As he has matured and grown older, and so has his character. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man as an actor, a writer, and as a filmmaker.
Diane Keaton (Hanging Up, The First Wives Club, Father Of The Bride) is back in the fold as Mary Wilke. Wilke is neurotic, self-absorbed, pretty and unstable, so of course Isaac has to have her. In Annie Hall, Keaton (who won a Best Actress Oscar for the role) played her role on a slightly broader note, whereas here her work is much more subtle and, I think, funnier. Ever the intellectual's pinup girl, she is never less than sensual, but there is more of an edge lurking beneath the surface. As he would do with Mia Farrow later, Allen helped Keaton to be a better actress. Just go back and look at her timing in Sleeper and see where she is here.
One of the major things I enjoy about Manhattan is Mariel Hemingway (Deconstructing Harry, Star 80, Personal Best) as Isaac's 17-year-old girlfriend, Tracy. The pain she goes through when Isaac breaks up with her and the confusion she feels when he drops back into her life is completely honest. Her performance has so many qualities and rings with such truth. She is sexual but innocent, wise beyond her years but still quite naïve. Her work here is so complete and has such charm, such grace, it is one of the movie's greatest triumphs.
In support you will find Meryl Streep (Music Of The Heart, The River Wild, Out Of Africa) in an early role as Isaac's lesbian ex-wife. She plays just the right tone of anger mixed with just the right sense of humor, allowing her to come off as so much more than the standard ex-wife bitch. Michael Murphy (Magnolia, Batman Returns, Salvador) is on hand as Yale, Isaac's best friend and straight man to Isaac's jokes. Murphy takes what is basically a thankless role and fleshes the character out, making him both pathetic as well as painfully human. Finally, in a throwaway scene, is Wallace Shawn as Mary's ex-husband, the man who opened her up sexually. Allen/Issac's reaction upon meeting Mary's sexual monster is one of the pictures best highlights.
To talk about Manhattan and to not mention New York City itself is to do a disservice to the film. The city is very much a character in the film, just as are the actors. In many ways this movie is Allen's greatest love song to the greatest city in the world. Together with master cinematographer Gordon Willis, Allen worked for the first time in black and white. In addition to that, for the first and only time, Allen shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. He used black and white to give a texture and a sheen to the city that is simply intoxicating. Then expanding his aspect ratio, he built a greater level of density to give a deeper feeling of detail and scope to his vision. I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that I have always felt that Manhattan is the most beautifully photographed film I have ever seen. There are images and shots in Manhattan that never fail to bring a tear to my eye. Willis' camera moves so far beyond postcard pretty, he captures the essence of the city in a way no one had before and no one has since. It was this film, in fact, that gave me the bug to go to New York City in the first place, oh so many years ago.
On the disc, MGM does right by the beauty of the film and provides an anamorphic transfer for Manhattan that maintains the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Blacks, shadows and gray simply pop with clarity and detail. Contrast is strong with there being no signs of shimmer or pixel breakup. Outside of some instances of film grain throughout the movie and the occasional scratch or nick on the print, Manhattan has never looked better for home viewing.
If you know Woody Allen and you know the way he works, you will be aware that the soundtrack is going to be mono. Since his films are generally word driven, this is not such a big deal. Certainly I would have loved to have more depth to the soundscape so that George Gershwin's music would have sounded better, but as it stands nothing sounds bad. The track itself is remarkably clear of distortions such as background hiss or those annoying pops. All in all, Manhattan sounds better than I expected.
As is to be expected, since this is MGM and a Woody Allen film, extras are confined to the film's theatrical trailer and the ever-present MGM Collectible Booklet. Normally I would rail on MGM for the lack of special content but in this case they are respecting the desire of the filmmakers. So I shall remain quiet, making only one request. I would hope that sometime soon Mr. Allen changes his mind, or at the very least modifies his position in regard to supplemental material.
If ever there was a filmmaker that divided people right down the middle, it's Woody Allen. If you are a fan of Woody Allen, then you already know of Manhattan's charms and probably own this disc. If you are not a fan, I doubt most anything is going to change your mind, this film included.
I suppose I could gripe about the lack of any extra material, but this is in accordance with the wishes of the director himself, so who am I to argue? Also I will repeat myself somewhat: it would have been great to hear the beautiful Gershwin music is Dolby 5.1 or, better yet, in DTS, but as always, in deference to the wishes of Woody Allen, the original mono soundtrack is all that is available.
There are very few films that I think of as perfect, and Manhattan is one of them. The movie is both extremely funny and very emotional. New York City has never looked more beautiful onscreen then under Gordon Willis' cinematography and the entire proceeding is wrapped up with a bow courtesy of the gorgeous music of George Gershwin. The writing is both sharp and perceptive with all of the performances being totally on the mark.
For the first-time Woody Allen viewer, Manhattan is a good place to start. All of his strengths are on ample display here with very few of his excesses. Priced to own, I picked it up at Tower Records for a mere $14.99, so you know online it may well be cheaper. This film is an important part of any person's collection if they are serious about great comedies and classic American cinema.
From this judge a lot of my problems with MGM are, for the time being, wiped away because of the release of the Woody Allen box set. I can only hope that all of the rights issues for the next wave of Allen films get cleared up soon. I am dying to own Zelig, The Purple Rose Of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose on DVD. I hope that when they do arrive, MGM steps up to the plate once again with anamorphic transfers.
All charges against Mr. Allen are summarily dismissed. Manhattan is an American classic. MGM is thanked for fine treatment of this film and the bench asks them to go back and give Annie Hall anamorphic treatment as well. This courtroom is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* Collectible Booklet
* Woody Allen FAQ