Saturday, November 05, 2005

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

There's a lot about the production of Manhattan Murder Mystery that was haphazard and slapdash. The plot is something Woody Allen picked up off of the cutting room floor after excising it from a different movie twenty years ago. The title is actually just what he used as the working title during production and then, when it came time to give it a real name, he couldn't think of anything better. Nevertheless, in spite of the seemingly cutcorner approach to the process, there's nothing about the final product that seems second string.

This movie not only marks Diane Keaton's one and only reappearance as a lead character (she had a minor role in 1987's Radio Days) in Woody Allen's film canon after a fifteen-year absence, but also a return to the kind of effortlessly erudite comedy that marked Allen's "Diane Keaton" period. She and Allen play Carol and Larry Lipton, a married couple in New York who, having sent their son (played by a young Zach Braff) off to college, are starting to settle comfortably into middle-age when an elderly neighbor suddenly dies under curious circumstances and Carol begins to suspect the deceased's husband is guilty of murder. Keaton and Allen play their roles perfectly; after about fifteen years apart, their chemistry is still second to none and seeing them play a couple that has been together for over twenty-five years feels like the most natural thing in the world. It's easy to imagine that this is what might have happened if Annie had married Alvy instead of running off to L.A.

In fact, the film from which he poached this movie's plot was Annie Hall, which he originally shot as a murder mystery, but wisely edited into a romantic comedy. As a result, Manhattan Murder Mystery is indelibly linked to its predecessor. The movie sees the reappearance of not only Diane Keaton, but also Allen's former co-writer Marshall Brickman (although he may have received a co-writer credit on this production simply because Allen used the story of a movie they wrote together almost two decades before), and, most potently, several jokes and tropes from Annie Hall that will wash over Allen enthusiasts in a soothing wave of nostalgia. References to Wagner, male incidences of penis envy, and polo mallets, among other things, bob up as clues hinting to the nature of this film's unlikely conception.

In spite of its indelible link to everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie, Manhattan Murder Mystery stands alone as a solid example of Allen's ability to mix comedy with the intellectualism of a self-taught New York literati. It's not one of Allen's more ambitious works, nor is it his simplest; it walks a line between the pitfalls of his two extremes and, as such, it hits every note perfectly.

This will be my last post on Woody Allen for a while, I promise. There was an Allen festival at one of the theaters in town and I just couldn't resist. It's over now, though, so I am free to move onto something new.

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