The Basics: ‘Manhattan’ casts a long shadow over the romantic comedy genre

02.15.10 8 years ago 4 Comments


If you’re not familiar with The Basics, a new occasional column here at HitFix, then you should read this article.  And this one.

And if you haven’t read the first response column from William Goss yet, in which he talks about his reaction to “Duck Soup,” then by all means, check it out.

After that first column, I was asked by producer Keith Calder if anyone was allowed to write a response column to The Basics, or if it’s just Goss.  And after Goss and I discussed it, we like the idea that anyone can play along if they want to.  I would love it if other people jumped in and added their voices to the mix.  After I write a challenge piece to Goss, if anyone else feels like responding, please just e-mail me a link to your piece, and we’ll make sure to include links the next time around.

I figured in keeping with today’s date, and also because the movie “Valentine’s Day” was released this weekend as part of the genre called “Romantic Comedies” that are neither romantic nor funny, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back at a film that has been ripped off so mercilessly for so many years and by so many films that when Goss watches it, I anticipate he’ll get a wicked case of deja vu.

Woody Allen’s early career was overtly comic, with him writing for early sketch comedy television (“Your Show Of Shows”), making a name for himself as a stand-up comic and an essayist with a taste for the absurd, and with films like “Sleeper” and “Bananas” and “Love And Death,” the best Marx Brothers movie that the Marx Brothers never made.  I wrote that one up for my Motion/Captured Must-See Project, since I don’t feel like it ever gets enough love.  Still, It was with “Annie Hall” that he suddenly made the jump into “serious” filmmaking, and even that film is still more of a comedy than anything else, but with a more wistful tone creeping in at the edges of things.  For my money, the moment where he pulled it all together to make something wise and adult and heartfelt and amazing was 1979’s “Manhattan,” a film that created a template that many people are still using.

Isaac Davis is a fairly typical Allen role, a witty, urbane New Yorker who spends his time in restaurants and galleries and talking with his friends.  At the start of the film, he’s involved in a relationship with Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and the age difference between them is striking, to say the least.  “She’s 17,” he remarks incredulously to a friend.  “I’m 42 and she’s 17.  I’m older than her father, can you believe that?  I’m dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father.”  Hemingway is pretty much the exact opposite of Isaac.  He’s cynical and sarcastic and hypereducated, and she’s sweet and earnest and completely open and unguaraded.  His friends aren’t sure what to make of her, but she doesn’t care.  She’s completely into Isaac, and that adoration explains how this unlikely relationship could continue.  He’s in need of a little romantic worship since his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman, something that could destroy any man’s self-esteem.  He spends much of the movie telling Tracy why he’s just a passing phase for her, doing his best to prepare her for the inevitable break-up, spending most of their relationship already looking forward to a time when it will be over, and as funny as much of the movie is, there’s a sadness that underscores it all.

The way Allen uses Gershwin music in the film was innovative and impressive at the time, and the use of locations in the film is not just to give the film a New York flavor.  It’s a way of demonstrating that Isaac loves his city, and the range of experience and opportunity the city affords to anyone paying attention is breathtaking.  That famous shot of Isaac sitting by the bridge has been reproduced in other films so many times that it’s almost like white noise at this point, but no one ever caught it in quite the same light or to quite the same effect.  Gordon Willis shot the film in luminous black-and-white, and if you like letterboxing on home video, you can pretty much thank Woody Allen, since he refused to issue a version of this film that was pan-and-scan.  The compositions are gorgeous, but they also illuminate the way Isaac feels about his city, about his home, and about the women in his life.  Willis is known as the “Prince Of Darkness” because of the way he loves to sculpt in shadow and negative space, and this movie’s got some great examples of that.

Yes, women.  Because even though most mortal men would be happy with a beautiful, smart younger woman who idolizes them, Isaac finds himself distracted when he meets Mary (Diane Keaton), the woman who is having an affair with his married friend Yale (Michael Murphy).  Mary’s sort of a pain in the ass in the film, the exact wrong woman for Isaac to be attracted to.  She’s opinionated without having the knowledge to back it up, she seems vaguely anti-Semetic with some of her comments, and, as mentioned, she’s involved in an affair with Yale.  And yet, there’s something about the two of them that makes sense.  She can’t really be with Yale, and he can’t really be with Tracy, not in any long-term sense, and they recognize that in one another.  I love that Keaton’s performance here is so different than her work as Annie Hall.  She’s not a daffy eccentric, charming and dizzy and effervescent.  Mary is Annie after several heartbreaks and some growing up, and with some of the fun beaten out of her by life.  Mary is smart, but she doesn’t hav the education to back it up, and so she talks constantly, sure that the sheer volume of words will make up for her insecurity.

To fully understand why I’m including this in The Basics, I need to lay out one specific and very famous beat from the film, so I hope this doesn’t ruin it for you, Goss.  Isaac eventually breaks up with Tracy, and she gets ready to go off to college overseas for a year, and Isaac tries to tell himself it’s for the best.  But as he’s at home, working, dictating, he starts to talk to himself about what it is that makes life worth living.  “It’s a very good question.  Well, there are certain things, I guess, that make it worthwhile. Like what… okay… ummmm… for me, I would say… what?  Groucho Marx, to name one thing…  uh… and Wilie Mays…  and, um, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony… and, um… Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues”  Swedish movies, naturally…  Sentimental Education by Flaubert.  Uh… Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra… those incredible apples and pears by Cezanne.  The crabs at Sam Wo’s, and, uh… Tracy’s face”

And when he says it, it’s as much a surprise to him as it would be to her, and yet he knows it’s true.  And as it sinks in, he has no choice.  He’s out the door, and then he’s running.  Desperate to reach Tracy before she leaves for the airport.  And how many times in the last 20 years have we seen a romantic comedy end with someone running to reach the other person and how often does it involve an airport?  Well, Goss, this is the epicenter, the source, the scene that everyone else is pilfering, and the way its played out here, and the way it’s kicked off, is perhaps the most honest version of it possible.  And the way it plays out once he gets where he’s going is also more honest than this genre seems capable of pulling off most of the time.  This movie has to be in your mental library because once it is, you’ll start to recognize just how much of it has been stripped for parts over the years.

Yes, the film is filled with brilliant, sharp, cutting dialogue.  And, yes, it’s gorgeous to watch and a treat to listen to.  But in the end, the reason this stands so far above most of the crap that litters this genre is because it is both genuinely romantic, and smart about it, and it’s genuinely funny.  If only the people who steal so savagely from this film could steal those two things as well.

Looking forward to your write-up, sir.  Enjoy the film.

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