In the wake of the scandal that has permanently changed the way people think of Woody Allen, it is hard to walk into his latest movie without feeling suspicion, resentment or even malice. There is something faintly absurd about sitting down to receive another dose of wit and wisdom from a man who betrayed his longtime companion (Mia Farrow) by running off with her adopted daughter (Soon-Yi Previn), then acted as if it were the most normal thing in the world. But with his new film, Allen offers an irresistible challenge to those who would prefer to write him off. Manhattan Murder Mystery is terrifically entertaining, a lighthearted escapade that offers comic relief— from both the soap opera of Allen’s life and the intensifying moral angst of his recent work. Filmed in the thick of the scandal, the movie makes just one allusion to it, an apologetic joke from Allen’s character: “I’ll never say that life doesn’t imitate art again.”
But if there is one happy side effect from the director’s tumultuous breakup with Farrow, it is his on-screen reunion with Diane Keaton. Farrow, a veteran of 12 Allen movies, was originally slated to be his co-star in Manhattan Murder Mystery. After the couple’s custody feud erupted a year ago, he replaced her with Keaton, Farrow’s predecessor both on-screen and off. The decision seemed cold-blooded at the time. But it is a joy to watch Keaton and Allen together again, stepping back into their soft-shoe repartee without missing a beat, overlapping each other’s sentences with the familiarity of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. And Keaton’s spunky, vivacious spirit is a refreshing change from the querulous, nattering whine that Farrow had adopted like a speech impediment.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (the 25th movie that Allen has directed, written or cowritten) marks a return to vintage Woodyland, with the director casting himself as a neurotic, fearful klutz in a broad comedy that is saturated with affection for New York City. But it also marks a departure: it is Allen’s first murder mystery. The story revolves around a couple whose long marriage becomes too cozy for comfort: timid Larry (Allen), a book editor, and impetuous Carol (Diane Keaton), a former advertising executive who quit her career to raise their son. Now that the son has grown up, she is dying to put some excitement into her life.
She finds the perfect diversion when she suspects that Paul Gerry Adler), an elderly neighbor across the hall, has murdered his wife. With great glee, Carol becomes an amateur detective, snooping around Paul’s apartment and obsessively tracking his movements— “I’m dizzy with freedom,” she tells Larry, who is almost apoplectic with worry. He tries in vain to stop her— “For crying out loud, save a little craziness for menopause!” But Carol ignores him and finds an ally in her friend Ted (Alan Alda), a divorced writer, who uses their mutual sleuthing to rekindle a long-simmering infatuation with her. Larry, meanwhile, engages in a shy flirtation with one of his authors, a smart, sexy provocateur named Marcia (a sublimely controlled Angelica Huston).
Larry, Carol, Ted and Marcia form a classic Woody Allen quartet, four cylinders sparking with latent infidelity. And it is unclear if the murder mystery will amount to anything more than an excuse for a finetuned comedy of marital manners. It is not even clear that there has been a murder. But the mystery keeps unfolding like a spirited game of Clue with some wild Hitchcock curves. And the result is an artfully balanced movie about resolving an alleged murder— and an alleged marriage. Finding a body becomes the key to both.
Aside from a cruel (and all too typical) portrayal of a bimbo, the film shows Allen on his best behavior. Over the years, he has tried to endow his screen persona with increments of self-serving sex appeal, culminating in last year’s Husbands and Wives, in which he played a professor who charms a female student. But in Manhattan Murder Mystery, he drops the pose and retreats to the safer, more likable nebbish routine of old. He also revives his talent for physical comedy—Woody the Clown—playing his strongest suit for a crowd that has run out of sympathy.
There is not a smidgen of sex in the film, not even a kiss. But Allen and Keaton spend some wonderful scenes in bed together, talking. The bedroom serves as a comfort zone, a site of civilized intimacy. And, whether his actors are in bed or at a restaurant table, Allen directs conversation with a fluidity and verve rivalled only by Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. Manhattan Murder Mystery induces the best kind of nostalgia: for the old Woody Allen, the old Manhattan, the movie Manhattan—and the way movies used to be.
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