Manhattan Review


Manhattan is Woody Allen’s love letter to New York. It’s also a complex and realistic love story. It’s beautifully filmed, well-acted, and wonderfully written. Most importantly, it’s well-worth two hours of your time. This might be the beloved director’s finest hour.

The film tells the story of Isaac Davis (Allen), a neurotic, twice-divorced television writer. He fashions himself a Manhattan intellectual who loves Bergman films and discussing art. He’s dating a girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), whose father he could beat up (a proud first for Isaac), and he can’t quite finish his writing his book, despite the success his ex-wife (Meryl Streep) is having with hers (which is a tell-all of the disintegration of their marriage and Isaac’s attempt to run over her new female lover).

When his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) confides in him that he’s having an affair, Isaac is taken aback. He is even more taken aback by the woman, Mary (Diane Keaton), who’s more of a pseudo-intellectual than even he is. They clash like oil and water, but after spending a night together walking the streets of their beloved city, they realize they actually might be compatible for each other. And an awkward love rectangle begins. Isaac loves Tracy, but thinks she is too young. He also likes Mary, but she still has feelings for Yale. Yale definitely reciprocates those feelings, but doesn’t want to leave the comfortable life he has with his wife. And Mary can’t decide whether she should accept marginal happiness with Isaac or continue to chase after her Yale, her real love.

It’s as complicated as it sounds, and for all the mature talk about life, love, culture, and happiness that these characters partake in, they are still somewhat selfish and definitely immature. Ironically, the most mature character might be Mariel, the youngest of the group and the one deemed too young for Isaac to get seriously involved with. She definitely is young at heart. Her vulnerability speaks to that. But she proves herself the only one who really knows what she wants, and she helps snap Isaac into shape in ways none of the other characters can, including himself.

Manhattan’s biggest asset is its gorgeous black-and-white photography. The city is clearly the star of the film, and Allen wants to highlight it as much and in as flattering a light as possible. Isaac narrates the stunning opening scene in which he tries to find the right words about his beloved city for his book. It’s a showcase for incredible city photography and draws you in immediately. Other technical aspects of the film are strong, including the great soundtrack and editing.

The acting all around is good, not great. Allen plays a variation on his usual character, which is a variation of the man himself. He’s good enough. The character isn’t too grating and still seems a little fresh, so he should get some credit, even if it’s not really groundbreaking work. Same goes for Diane Keaton. She has that whole New York intellectual thing down pat, and she doesn’t falter.

The standout is Mariel Hemingway (she’s also the only one who was recognized by the Academy). Tracy is the most sympathetic character because of her maturity and the sense we get that the other characters are kind of taking advantage of her. Isaac doesn’t consider her feelings very often when making important decisions. Of all the characters in the film, our allegiance is most with Tracy.

Manhattan is often regarded as Woody Allen’s best. It’s certainly up there with Annie Hall, Match Point, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors for me. It doesn’t really offer much to chew on afterward, but it keeps your attention and is definitely enjoyable. It’s also technically exceptional, very well-written, and features great acting. Allen’s films definitely aren’t for everybody, but if you like him or are curious about his work, Manhattan is a very worthwhile experience.

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