Manhattan Murder Mystery marks Woody Allen's welcome return to comedy, his specialized genre. Beginning his directorial career in the late l960s, he made his best work in the l970s. Allen has actually enjoyed two artistic peaks: the first in the late l970s, with the l977 Oscar-winning Annie Hall and Manhattan (l979), two quintessentially New York romantic comedies. And the second a decade later, with the more resonant and mature comedy-drama, Hannah and Her Sisters.
The core audience for Allen's humor was the Baby Boom generation that came of age in the late l960s and early l960s, when he was experimenting with his wildly irreverent comedies, Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Love and Death. But over the last decade, Allen has fallen on creative hard times. He is now struggling to recapture his old audiences and hopefully appeal to new, younger ones. With the exception of last year's Husbands and Wives, Allen has not made a good, let alone commercial, movie in close to a decade. Yet, admirably, the compulsively workaholic director keeps going like a Swiss clock–he may be the only American director to produce one movie a year.
Allen seems to have lost his loyal following and is in desperate need of finding a new one. Last year, Shadows and Fog failed miserably at the box office, and Husbands and Wife, an accomplished comedy-drama about divorce, barely recouped its expense.
I don't envy the marketing people at Tri-Star, for Manhattan Murder Mystery is not easily classifiable. Slight and inconsequential, this romp isn't as rambunctious or outrageous as the new Hollywood comedies. And despite its title, it's not a conventional thriller or a genuine murder mystery. The new film seems to me an update of one of those l930s elegant comedies, in which style and mood were far more important than substance.
Manhattan Murder Mystery may have been inspired by, or even modeled after, The Thin Man. In lieu of the classy Nick and Nora (played with great panache by William Powell and Myrna Loy), we have Larry and Carol Lipman (Allen and Diane Keaton), a middle-aged married couple who are parents to a college-age son (rarely seen in the film). Larry is a senior editor at a publishing house, whereas Carol is a bored housewife with aspirations to open a gourmet restaurant.
Shortly after meeting their next-door neighbors, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen), Lillian has a fatal heart attack. But Paul seems too cheerful, too unaffected by his wife's death, which arouses Carol's suspicion that things are not as simple as they appear. With the dedication of a neurotic Hollywood sleuth–and nothing better to do with her time–she starts following Mr. House, snooping around in his apartment, where she finds some evidence for her suspicions. Things get more complicated, when one day Carol detects the presumably dead Mrs. House riding on a bus. She decides to recruit their writer friend (Alan Alda) into helping her solve the mystery.
Keaton is meant to be a dizzy, beautiful housewife, who all of sudden finds her mission–and calling–in life. She is a woman who senses she's onto the most thrilling adventure in her life and won't let go until she unravels the puzzle. The irony, of course, is that ultimately the one who gets to do the glamorous job is another woman, a beautiful writer (Anjelica Huston) whose book is edited by Allen.
An amiable romp, Manhattan Murder Mystery is always pleasant to watch. Like the Thin Man film series, there is a successful blend of suspense and laughs. The rather silly intrigue is interspersed with typical Allen jokes about the quality of life in “murderous” Manhattan, food, dieting, exercising, etc.
The movie is saved by two great actresses, Diane Keaton and Anjelica Huston, who are no less than stunning. Keaton, who replaced Farrow at the last moment, demonstrates again the ease and authority with which she commands the screen. Keaton somehow manages to transform shopworn ideas into something fresh, even original. She keeps her performance vigorously likable, even when the movie slows down.
Allen uses to advantage Anjelica Huston's grand, mysterious persona. Though playing a secondary role, her strong presence and overpowering sexuality are very much in evidence. The men, in contrast, are dull. Allen has written himself a boring role—another variation of his cowardly nebbish.
Regrettably, sexuality has almost disappeared from Allen's recent work. He seems to have gone from one extreme to another. In his earlier pictures, the variations of schlemiels he played–were obsessed with getting laid. His onscreen sexual anxieties, incompetence, and triumphs were reassuring for the viewers: Allen made ordinary looking men and outsiders like him, feel good about themselves. His sharp wit and poignant humor made Allen appealing to women–you could believe that an attractive woman like Diane Keaton would be drawn to him–on screen and off.
In his recent movies, however, there is almost no sex at all. I don't want to read too much into the influence of Allen's private life on his work, but in Husbands and Wives, the characters talk endlessly about the lack of sex in their marriage. And they continue to talk in Manhattan Murder Mystery, where Diane Keaton, like Mia Farrow before her, asks Allen if he is still attracted to her. In fact, in the new movie, the middle-aged Allen and Allan Alda (who plays a bachelor), are reduced to teenagers in their continuous banter–and thoughts–about adultery. I would be the last one to propagate more sex in American movies, except that in Allen's case, sex and fun go hand in hand–without gags about sex, there isn't much fun.
Lately, Allen has also moved away from his old–very Jewish–brand of humor. But, unfortunately, he hasn't substituted it with anything new. He isn't particularly good at subtle, sophisticated humor, the kind that decorated the classic screwball comedies. A first-rate satirist, Allen used to parody with affection and wit the sex comedy of manners. But without sex, what's left in Manhattan Murder Mystery is just a mild, gentle comedy of manners. And it's not enough–not for a Woody Allen film.
Though the characters are Jewish, there is nothing explicitly Jewish about the Lipmans. That Allen never felt comfortable about his Jewish identity was evident in many of his movies. But here the characteristic self-effacement has turned into self-denial. By giving his characters distinctly Jewish names, Allen may feel he has paid his duties as a Jewish filmmaker.
Most of Allen's movies of the last decade have become insulated–you can't ground them in any recognizable reality. Shadows and Fog, for example, was rooted in the expressionistic German cinema–but not life–of the l920s. The more accomplished and disciplined he has become as a craftsman, the less interesting he is as an auteur. In the past, Allen served as the chronicler of the urban angst of his generation. His movies were funny, but they also had something significant to say. There seems to be no pressing reason to make a movie like Manhattan Murder Mystery–other than to keep working. Nor is there evidence here of the sheer pleasure of filmmaking that Allen used to convey so exhilaratingly in the past.
When I was a graduate student at Columbia, in the mid l970s, a new Woody Allen film was eagerly awaited–it was an event. But nowadays, the prevalent feeling is of anxiety and fear–will it be the last Allen picture as doom sayers predict in Hollywood. Making undistinguished films like Manhattan Murder Mystery certainly won't help a director who has received such bad press over his private affairs, and his very career seems to be on the line.