Yes, the Woody Allen screen persona is well-known and established, but the actor does play different characters within that persona. Sometimes it’s just a few degrees off and hardly perceptible to the naked eye, but his Isaac Davis in “Manhattan” is noticeably unique. Isaac is something of an innocent, an unassuming man whose unwavering integrity comes naturally.
In a city like Manhattan, this, of course, might lead to his downfall, and the genius of Allen’s absolutely brilliant screenplay (Marshall Brickman co-wrote) is how this story is all about driving towards the film’s final line, a beauty of a closer that perfectly hits every cinematic sweet spot right before the fade:
“You have to have a little faith in people.”
Another of Isaac’s weak spots (and much of the film’s humor) comes from his inability to suffer pretentious, elite, liberal intellectuals. This is what likely cost him his first two wives, both of whom were pretentious, elite, liberal intellectuals. Overall, though, when we first meet him, Isaac is doing just fine. He’s making good money as a television comedy writer, is a loving father to his son, and his close friends — the married Yale and Mary (Michael Murphy and Anne Byrne Hoffman) — have taken him under their wing like a kid brother.
Isaac isn’t perfect; he is involved in a love affair with Tracy, a 17 year-old high school student. In his defense, she is more mature than he is and he refuses to lie to her. He’s very open about the fact that eventually she will have to move on with her life, that she has to experience life without him, and that what they have together isn’t permanent.
Things start to unravel with the arrival of Mary (Diane Keaton), a pretentious, elite, liberal intellectual Yale is having a passionate affair with. Because Yale can’t choose between wife and mistress, Isaac inadvertently gets pulled into the relationship and ends up falling for Mary. Isaac is a loyal friend, though, and keeps his distance. Eventually, Yale and Mary break up, and with Yale’s blessing, Isaac begins seeing Mary. Soon after, they fall in love and move in together.
Events seem to have finally conspired in Isaac’s favor, but in reality things have only started to get complicated. Through no fault of his own, other than his own naïve belief that people are like him, especially his friends, Isaac is soon faced with the very real possibility that on top of the job he quit in a fit of integrity, he could lose the woman he loves and both of his best friends.
The main selling point of “Manhattan” is how legitimately funny and touching the story is. This is a title in my permanent rotation, a film I’ve seen at least fifty times, but because the humor isn’t about punch-lines or complicated set-ups, the jokes never grow stale and still catch me off guard, especially Isaac’s reactions to a world he’ll never quite understand.
“Manhattan” is also optimistic. Knowing Allen’s work the way I do, it’s doubtful his story of a decent man unmercifully punished for being so was meant to be optimistic. But in the end you know that Isaac will prevail, that the world hasn’t beaten or changed him. Better still, when you see his unforgettable reaction to being told to have a little faith in people, you know that at the very least, he’s wiser.
If you’re going to buy one Woody Allen film on Blu-ray, there isn’t even a close second place. Cinematographer and longtime Allen collaborator Gordon Willis (they’ve done 8 films together) photographed the City of Manhattan in gorgeous, widescreen black and white, and seeing it in high-def literally takes your breath away.
My Madonna/whore love affair with New York is defined both by Allen’s Gershwinized “Manhattan” and William Friedkin’s gritty “French Connection” vision. And to see one of those visions realized to its full potential is, in a word, delightful.
Though I’m absolutely in love with over 25 of Woody Allen’s films, “Manhattan” is, for my money, his magnum opus — a genuine masterpiece that I have to stop myself from watching too often for fear it gets stale. Thankfully, the Blu-ray is like a reboot, a 2.0 version that adds something entirely new.
“Manhattan” is available at Amazon.