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 insufferable. Whew.

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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