I’d seen this movie at least twice before and thought it would be nice, given the moment, to revisit Woody Allen’s homage to Manhattan. The film was released in 1979, a period when the city was regarded as an urban hellhole typified by sleazy characters in Times Square and dirty subway cars covered with graffiti.
Maybe Allen wanted to give another view. He wrote and acted in the script, which was rendered beautifully in broad-screen black and white by master cinematographer Gordon Willis. Willis died in 2014, but still is admired and studied for his framing of scenes to signal subtle barriers of curtain and glass and to indicate in color the light and dark aspects of characters’ natures.
The Willis camerawork, backed by the New York Philharmonic’s lush rendering of Irving Berlin’s music, gives Manhattan an aura that, in retrospect, its story cannot sustain.
Consider the period — after the introduction of the birth control pill and before the contagions of herpes and HIV — in which its characters came of age. We have Isaac (Woody Allen,) who is involved with 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and his ex-wife, Jill (Meryl Streep,) who is raising their largely ignored son with another woman and writing a tell-all book about their former marriage. Then there is Isaac’s humbly named friend, Yale (Michael Murphy,) who is happily married but also involved with Mary (Diane Keaton) in an extramarital relationship that seems not to trouble his spouse.
Through all the sturm und drang, Isaac and the other adults cannot articulate what they want, but they continually assert their erudition — effectively, their self-absorption — in discussions of interpersonal issues.
For me, the ultimate moment comes when Isaac and Mary — each momentarily available and uncertain — talk about their respective situations in a visit to the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.
Think of it this way: “…It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people
like you and me don’t amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world cosmos.”
In short, Isaac and his friends lack perspective. Allen is laughing at himself and all the other ostensibly adult characters. At least I hope so.
Ultimately, the most genuine character is Tracy, who is younger and taller than Isaac and who talks straight. Early on, she says, “Well, I told you before. I think I’m in love with you.” She’s the authentic grownup.