Manhattan

This is the second Woody Allen movie I’ve ever seen. I was much more impressed by this than I was by Sleeper. The shots were so unusual and well-composed — characters speaking out of frame, or seamlessly taking focus at exactly the right time — that I rewound and watched some of them twice. The direction was fantastic, and the performances spot-on. Streep was luminous, Keaton virtuosic, Hemingway pitch-perfect. I don’t know at this point how typical it is for Allen to mix old-time movie musical sentiment with modern relationship dramedy and almost Shakespearean romantic farce, but all three were essential and fit together like gears in a watch.

The reason I can’t love the movie is that the characters all drove me nuts. It’s fine for fictional characters to behave in foolish, obnoxious, morally dubious ways — that’s where stories come from, and anyway they’re “people, human beings” — but there’s something about how these people behave that I just couldn’t warm to. Perhaps it was watching these women improbably or at least ill-advisedly throw themselves at Isaac (Allen), a bit like watching awkward but elegant does being run down by the inattentive driver of a Ford Pinto. Perhaps it was the late 70s talk of “affairs,” and the way everyone was so adult about it, which was somehow both better and worse. Perhaps it was the rapid-fire intellectual passport-stamping, which is supposed to be and is obnoxious. Perhaps it’s just Allen himself, who is great behind the camera but infinitely punchable in front of it.

All I know is that these are the sorts of people who make me glad I don’t spend more time with people. That probably doesn’t make me a likely potential Woody Allen fan. That’s fine.

Those of you who mainly think of Soon-Yi when you think of Woody might be entertained by knowing that his character begins and ends the film dating a teenager (17 going on 18). She’s sweet, open-hearted, loving, not stupid or especially naive, more mature than many of the adults, probably the most sympathetic character in the film (except that, you know, she’s in love with a 42-year-old man with the face, neuroses, and frankly often limp jokes of Woody Allen). It’s not hard to speculate that part of the reason he fell in love with a much younger woman was that she was too inexperienced to recognize that he was full of grade-A, finely directed, beautifully naturally acted bullshit.

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