Manhattan opens with static shots of the city in black and white, accompanied by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Woody Allen’s stumbling narration about how best to capture the city’s beauty and at the same time saying that Manhattan is “a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture.” He’s a pessimist.
The music builds and crashes, and it helps give us the sense that Manhattan is alive and well. It’s just another way of showing us that the city is a character itself in the film. People love saying “the city is its own character in this movie,” and here it is.
We follow Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), a television writer as he dates 17 year old Tracy and soon falls in love with his friend Yale’s mistress, Mary (played by Diane Keaton).
This is the first Woody Allen film (in terms of chronology) that reminds me of the Allen films I was first introduced to, such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Match Point (2005). They’re similar because they explore multiple romantic relationships and affairs and the problems those cause.
Isaac is incredibly conflicted about dating a girl 25 years younger than him, but his friend Yale and Yale’s wife Emily do not seem bothered. In fact, they think she’s good for Isaac, but Isaac never takes Tracy seriously. His last wife left him for another woman, and he turns to a 17 year old as if to prove himself as a man, or at least that’s what Mary believes and tells him plainly.
Tracy is lovely, but I never understood what she saw in Isaac. Sure he’s funny, but I wanted to know how they met and if it was in a non-predatory way. The idea of attractive, extremely giving woman falling for Woody Allen’s characters is explored or at least addressed in his next film, Stardust Memories (1980).
So Isaac has put a halt to any progression in his relationship with Tracy while he tries to work out his anger towards his ex-wife and then to deal with feelings towards Mary. When Mary and Yale call it off, Yale encourages Isaac to ask her out. So he does.
Things progress nicely, and it seem like Isaac has finally found someone on his level, both in age, life experience and values. See, most of the people in this film are smothered in intellectual grease. Or at least it’s the type of grease that is very shiny so that when these people mingle in black ties and dresses or at museum openings, all they see in each other is themselves. They spout basically bullshit about life as if they know anything, and here is where I come off as angry and bitter that I don’t live in a city as cool as Manhattan.
But I think Manhattan is a bubble. It’s an island, so there might be some symbolism there. I should continue with the story.
Isaac and Mary get along swimmingly it seems, but then Yale tells her he still loves her, even if he is still married. Isaac breaks it off with Tracy, encouraging her to go to London where she has some sort of scholarship awaiting her. Then Mary breaks it off with Isaac because she says she’s still in love with Yale. Isaac isn’t mad, just shocked.
Isaac is mad at Yale, however, because Yale wasn’t upfront with Isaac and caused the problem by encouraging Isaac to be with Mary.
Later, Isaac records himself discussing a short story idea that’s just about this film: people who create their own neurotic problems because they can’t or don’t want to deal with problems of the universe. He then asks himself “why is life worth living?” The answer he ultimately settles on is Tracy’s smile.
So then he races across town and reaches Tracy just before she is to depart for London. He tells her not to leave and goes back on everything he had told her before they broke up. Tracy, however, says she needs to leave.
The last thing she says to Isaac is “you have to have a little faith in people.”
Isaac looks slightly amused but a little uneasy. Then we cut to three shots of the city, getting further away so that in the last shot we see the bridge into Manhattan from the outside. We’ve left the bubble.
So I see the film as a wake up call for people too consumed by their own tiny worlds. Isaac never considers leaving Manhattan, and Yale never considers moving to Connecticut or having children as his wife desires. Even Mary struggles with the realization that she’s “that” kind of woman, having an affair with a man who will never leave his wife, and yet she does nothing about it.
At the end, though, it seems as though Yale and Mary will indeed move in together, so they finally make a change only for the cycle to continue, presumably. They are going nowhere fast.
Isaac, in typical Woody Allen fashion, mostly complains and rants in an amusing way. He never gives Tracy a real chance to be loved, and yet he drags it out all the same. She’s the one who is able to move on despite being heartbroken when Isaac cut it off. Maybe it’s youthful naivete that she says to have faith in others or maybe it’s sincere optimism. Either way, it’s hard to tell if Isaac will listen to her or simply go on living his Manhattan life. It didn’t completely feel authentic that he would love Tracy. It’s instead more of a symptom of being alone after Mary ends their relationship.
Allen does a good job of creating well-rounded but flawed characters. This film combines the sensibilities of Annie Hall with some of the complexities of Interiors to show how characters deal with loss in a more comedic or relatable fashion. Each character in Manhattan is rejected at least once, and they all deal with it in different ways: Mary tries to be alone but falls into Isaac’s embrace, Yale (after Mary initially rejects his offer to get back together) remains persistent to win her back, Yale’s wife acknowledges that compromises are part of marriage, Tracy cries and wants to be alone, and Isaac runs across town to the girl who never rejected him after he feels Mary’s rejection.
The humor is still there, but it’s a little more tampered than Annie Hall and way more tampered than his earlier comedies. The comedy mostly comes from Isaac’s stammering his way through ideas of life as well as the collective behavior of the haughty people around him.
So no one really seems to change except for Tracy. We enter the bubble, see how beautiful the bubble is because it preserves a moment in time, just like a film does. It’s as if Woody is acknowledging that this film can only capture Manhattan as it is in that moment, so we see these characters consumed by the moment and acting irrationally and recklessly. None of them are concerned about the future even as they fly through middle age. The characters are, however, concerned with the past and how it has influenced who they are right now. One humorous example of this is when Isaac finally meets Mary’s sexual god of an ex-husband, only for it to be played by a man who bears a striking resemblance to Isaac. In other words he’s not the type of man Isaac or the audience pictured. In this way it only seems that Isaac matches up with Mary because Mary has a thing for his “type.”
Similarly, Isaac only matches up with Tracy because he’s acting out of insecurity when his last wife left him for another woman. Isaac is conflicted because he acts one way but thinks logically enough to know he should be acting another way, and still he doesn’t. So he’s constantly tortured by his own mistakes even as they happen. He continues to make those mistakes, admitting that he knew Mary would be a mistake after the affair with Yale. So Isaac chases down Tracy, probably aware on some level that it’s yet another mistake.
Everyone makes mistakes, but some people learn and others continue to make them. Then we leave the bubble, and hopefully we’re the ones that learn. Directed by Woody Allen in windsor typeface.
Up Next: Stardust Memories (1980), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983)