Woody Allen’s Manhattan

To be a lifelong devotee of Woody Allen and not be enthralled by Manhattan, is like being a fan of Shakespeare who doesn’t like Hamlet. It’s sacrilege. It’s simply not done.

And yet I’ve never managed to be more than ambivalent about this most touted of Allen films. It’s not that I don’t like it, of course – there are parts of it which I simply adore (that opening sequence, the alternate startings to the book followed by Gershwin, has to be one of the greatest starts to a movie ever), but it’s never quite had, for me, the stature of Annie Hall or Hannah and her Sisters or Love and Death.

Watching Manhattan again this week, for the third, and fourth, time, I think I begin to see what the problem is. If I enjoyed the movie a lot more this time around, it’s because I was paying a lot less attention to the plot and focussing a lot more on the individual scenes. And that helped to bring out all there is to love about the film – the laugh out loud dialogue, the endlessly inventive satire, the hilarious self-deprecation (what other film maker would shoot a scene where the hero starts running across town, driven by a desperate, overwhelming desire to see the love of his life – and runs out of breath in two blocks), the incredible amount of self-reference, the sublime Jazz and the most glorious, loving testament to a city ever put on film.

Why then do I not love this movie with every morsel of my being? Could it be because it seems too serious, too sentimental? That moral self-righteousness sounds wrong coming from a man who put the absurd back in absurdism, whose great cinematic insight is that the absolute meaningless of everything is actually the biggest joke of all? That it’s harder to laugh at the comic situations that Allen’s characters put themselves in when you can actually apprehend them as vulnerable, and see the pain that those situations must cause them? Or is it just that the optimism seems misplaced? Annie Hall, is not, after all an unsentimental film, but could it be that its lack of a happy ending lends it a credibility in my eyes that the sugary conclusion to Manhattan doesn’t?

Perhaps the reason I don’t like Manhattan is, ironically enough, that it’s the only truly credible love story Allen has been able to tell, and without the half-mocking tone that relationships in Allen’s movies tend to have, the jokes leave me feeling a lot queasier. Manhattan is a movie that more than deserves to be taken seriously – and that may be precisely the problem I have with it.