Marshall Brickman and Woody Allen, 1979
#10 (chronologically) in Mike D'Angelo's list of twelve films
to which he would give a score of 100 out of 100.
A nebbishy TV writer, in his 40s but dating a high school
girl, finds himself falling for his best friend's mistress.
Reaction (gets slightly spoily)
This movie turned out to be a lot better than it initially
seemed like it was going to be. A lot of the early action
revolves around insufferable east coast types hanging around
museums nattering on about Mahler and negative capability and
I started to get the sinking feeling that I not only wasn't
supposed to find them insufferable but was actually supposed
to be chuckling along with them. Was this going to be the
movie version of NPR's "Says You"? Fortunately for me, I
gave the movie the benefit of the doubt and stuck it out long
enough to discover that, yes, they were in fact supposed to be
But wait. I like museums. I took enough classes on the
Romantics (the poets, not the dudes suing Guitar Hero) to know
what negative capability is. I've never been into classical
music, but all in all I'm not allergic to highbrow stuff. So
why did I have such a negative reaction to it here? I gave
this some thought and my hypothesis is that it's a matter of
time or place or possibly both.
See, this movie came out in 1979. That was before the rise
of geek culture. Nowadays we live in such a thoroughly
anti-intellectual society that people mostly do not adopt
intellectual trappings as a means of jockeying for status.
In 1979 being able to demonstrate an acquaintance with high
culture was an asset. Now, not so much. The sorts of crowds
that thirty years ago would feel compelled to trade opinions
about Norman Mailer are now content to stick to "Extreme
Makeover Home Edition." Filling the void are geeks: music
geeks, literature geeks, movie geeks, people motivated by
genuine enthusiasm rather than a quest for cultural capital,
people who write blogs rather than submitting articles to
glossy magazines in order to be able to mention their credits
at cocktail parties.
I say "mostly" because I have gathered that in some places
people still do this. New York may still be one of these places.
And yes, while the number of dudes with elbow patches trying to
pick up chicks by breezily talking about the O'Neill biography
they're working on may have dropped, there are still plenty of sad
cases who hang around diners hoping to intrigue the waitresses
by reading Kierkegaard and wearing a generationally inappropriate
hat. This is all back-of-the-envelope pop sociology (read:
non-rigorous and therefore pointless). But I do suspect that a
big part of what rubbed me the wrong way about Manhattan
at the beginning and then periodically for the rest of the movie
was that the intellectual talk lacked that element of geekiness
that makes it feel sincere.
Anyway, like I said, the movie grew on me. I never actually
laughed at it, but the Woody Allen character's comedic patter
gradually put me in a good enough mood to generate warm
feelings about the whole dealio. I also very much liked the
way Allen played off narrative expectations. I read one review
that pointed out that there is a long tradition of providing the
romantic couple with a comedic echo, and that Allen here turns
that on its head by making a funny-sidekick type into the lead
character. This is true! But I would say that even more
impressive is that the formula here is so completely obvious
that you feel you know exactly where the movie is going to go
— immature man dating an underage girl 25 years his junior
resolves his midlife crisis by pairing with an equal in wisdom
and life experience — and it goes exactly where you
expected, and you feel smug... but then it keeps on going,
because life doesn't stop just because the formula does. (For
some reason I feel like Dan Shiovitz has probably written that
sentence before.) Even before kicking the formula to the curb,
Manhattan gets big points for taking the character of
17-year-old Tracy seriously. That's awesome. Yeah, there's no
small amount of wish fulfillment going on there, but she's not
a cutesy cheerleader type the way she would be in most movies
— she's not even conventionally pretty — and she's
not the butt of the joke. There's a great moment early on in
which the older woman asks, "What do you do, Tracy?" and Tracy
replies, in her young, high voice, "I go to high school." And
the way Mariel Hemingway delivers that line — there's
no wisecrack the older woman can answer back with that can
make Tracy feel small, because Tracy's not ashamed of who she
is. I love that.
Three things about the ending:
First, when Isaac's head explodes at the prospect of having to
wait "six months?!?" I kind of wanted to punch him in the snout.
"Six months is a long time!" he protests. Fuck you! Some of us
have to wait several months between visits year after fucking
year. You have to do it once. Suck it up.
Second, no matter how many times I read that the line is "Not
everybody gets corrupted," I cannot hear the "not." It's like
the "a" in Neil Armstrong's "one small step for a man."
Third, considering that the whole thing is about someone catching
a plane, it probably wasn't a good idea to score the whole thing
with the music from that airline commercial.
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