Friday, February 19, 2010
This is a response to an open invitation from Drew McWeeny of HitFix
I have a checkered history with Woody Allen that runs the gamut of loving and deeply responding to his work (Radio Days), being reasonably entertained (Sleeper, Match Point, Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, Sweet and Lowdown), almost hating (Vicky Christina Barcelona), and finally, respecting but feeling emotionally "meh" towards (Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, The Purple Rose of Cairo). Approaching a new Woody Allen film (well, new to me anyway) is always a mixture of curiosity, anticipation, and dread - what's the latest cinematic classic that I'll have to admit with no lack of embarrassment that I don't really care for?
Such, sadly, is the case with Manhattan.
I say "sadly" because I hate not responding to movies that are this well done. There's really no reason for me to not like this movie. Allen, as he is wont to do, crafted really great, well-rounded characters, put them in compelling, totally relatable scenarios, and not only kept them behaving like people rather than plot or thematic devices, but made that just as important to the film as what it says about modern romance. And if all that seems really easy, try writing a screenplay this honest, fresh (for the time), thematically sound, and emotionally relevant and then come back to me and tell me Allen's work here is no small feat.
If Allen is at fault for anything, it's for doubting his strengths. When, for instance, Isaac (the Woody surrogate in the film) lays back on the couch at the end of the film, relating to his tape recorder all the things that make life worth living, and stumbles upon "Tracy's face." Recalling a...high school sweetheart of sorts, that moment tells us everything the previous scene, filled with late-expository dialogue, did, and more. It sums up the totality of regret as one of life's inevitabilities.
By now, it should come as little surprise that a Woody Allen film is a tad overwritten - how many times does he need to tell his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) that he doesn't approve of her publishing a book about their divorce? - but even when he has characters sit around and tell us what they think, it cuts to the core of what makes them tick. In a pivotal, conflict-ridden scene between Allen and Diane Keaton, playing one of Allen's love interests, we see the depths to which Mary (Keaton) chases drama and how quickly Isaac finds comfort.
What bothers, and paradoxically fascinates, me most, however, is the shine Allen has taken to these people, particularly (surprise, surprise) Isaac. The characters Allen plays in every film are inevitably accused of being self-centered, narcissistic, and various other synonyms for said behavior, and Allen has clearly heard those criticisms in real life while never actually applying it to his art. For as flawed and heartless and brutal as the other characters can be, Allen's characters aren't actually any better, and yet they're always given the last word and always given a chance to atone, even if the success of that attempt may vary.
Further, in any given argument, they're always right. Or so the film insists Any question the film may pose, be it philosophical, cultural, moral, whatever, Allen is always portrayed as the piece's superior. And while it's obviously okay, and more often than not encouraged, for an artist to give us his view of the world, it's another to handle it so awkwardly and blatantly, sacrificing the drama of giving us a central character who's often wrong, and has to live with the consequences of poor choices.
Finally, I should mention that while I have a problem with Allen's big picture, I have absolutely no qualms with the big pictures he and cinematographer Gordon Willis created here. There's not much to say that hasn't been said better elsewhere, but it's quite frequently pretty stunning stuff. Allen probably would have benefited from a costume designer better acquainted with monochrome (the grays tend to blend together), but it's pretty amazing he didn't work with that stock - or in 2:35 - more often. This is the kind of stuff they invented the big screen for, the kind we've been in danger of losing since the advent of home video.
Posted by Scott Nye at 11:28 PM