Manhattan Murder Mystery

MMM-PosterHere’s a confession for you. Despite being 34 years old, and having watched “grown up” movies regularly since I was in high school, and having an interest in critically acclaimed films and filmmakers… I had never seen a Woody Allen movie. He’s been the writer, director, and star of somewhere over two dozen films, many of them quite acclaimed, and I hadn’t seen a one of them. So, with Manhattan Murder Mystery being the only Allen film sitting in my Hulu queue, I decided it would be as appropriate place as any to begin.

Now, not having watched any Woody Allen films doesn’t mean I’m not aware of them. That meant it was no surprise that Allen had cast himself as the male lead, Larry Lipton, and that the character was a nebbishy Jewish New Yorker (of course, in Manhattan, that last is pretty much a given.) Nor was it a surprise that he was once again paired up with his Annie Hall co-star Diane Keaton as Larry’s wife Carol. What was a bit of a surprise was that it was Keaton’s character who was prone to flights of fancy, not Allen’s. When their next-door neighbor dies suddenly, Carol is turned away from the obvious and logical answer of a heart attack. Because the neighbor’s husband, played by Jerry Adler, is acting strangely (by Carol’s interpretation), she concludes that he has committed murder.

MMM-0428

It’s always the ones you don’t suspect. Or, I suppose, the ones you do. Which pretty much covers all the possibilities.

The film deftly plays with the audience over the validity of Carol’s suspicions and Larry’s skepticism. Carol, as played by Keaton, is clearly prone to being imaginative and having grandiose visions and a drive for adventure and novelty; her desire for something interesting to happen could easily be fueling her suspicions. Larry is as neurotic as the pop culture image of Woody Allen always is, reclusive and meek; his skepticism could be just from a wish not to get involved. And the neighbor’s behavior is perhaps a little odd for a grieving husband, but not so far out of place that it automatically looks suspicious. Late night walks and spending time away from home are entirely believable of someone who has just lost their spouse, and Jerry Adler is always the picture of amiability… yet there’s just enough that’s “off” about him that the audience doesn’t dismiss Carol as being completely nuts.

Rounding out the small cast are Alan Alda and Anjelica Houston, whose characters serve to provide some sexual tension and a sense of mid-life crisis to the main characters. Alda’s Ted is an old friend of the Liptons; outgoing, creative, and adventurous, he’s everything Larry isn’t, and he believes Carol from the beginning. Houston plays Marcia Fox, a vampish writer who is a client of Larry’s, and clearly interested in him in the same sort of opposites-attract way that probably brought Larry and Carol together to begin with. The side plot of Larry and Carol each being tempted from their staid marriage is played subtly, complementing the main plot of the film without overshadowing it.

MMM-1184

A double date with potential two-timers. Is that a quadruple date?

The humor is constant in the film and consistently funny. It doesn’t shout the laughs at the audience, but simply rambles on with them, inserting them frequently and quietly into the narrative. Despite the murder theme, it’s not an action comedy, and despite the mid-life crisis subplot, it’s not a romantic comedy either. It’s mostly a situation comedy where the situation is an amateur murder investigation. It’s gently upbeat, briskly paced, and reliably funny in a quiet manner. Because it approaches the humor differently than most comedies built around a murder investigation, it feels original. There is one exception, with Carol falling into the tired old cliche of the investigator being trapped in the suspect’s home when the suspect unexpectedly returns, but this was the only groan-worthy moment of the film.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is an amusing comedy that plays with the audience’s expectations on a mystery. Rather than asking who committed a murder, it has the audience wondering if a murder has been committed. While not the only film to take this approach, it’s still a rarity, and the approach works for it in a way that a more straightforward murder mystery might not. What really makes it work is that on one level, we don’t even really care about the answer; whether the neighbor killed his wife or not, it’s fun to watch Carol and Larry bicker through the investigation.

Rating: 4 Stars

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About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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12 Responses to Manhattan Murder Mystery

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Didn’t love it, but found Allen’s play with conventions and genre a bunch of fun. Also, really cool to see Zach Braff when he was such a youngster. Good review Morgan.

  2. I can’t believe you’d never seen a Woody Allen movie before! But I’m glad you had a good first experience. I’d recommend Midnight in Paris, my favorite from him.

  3. ray brayne says:

    You sir have committed a mortal sin and must atone! To be a movie blogger/reviewer without knowledge of Woody Allen is heresy. He is a national treasure whose works even now have yet to be fully appreciated. He’s worked with nothing but the best people including the finest cinematographers. And actresses beg on bended knee to work with Woody because he’s earned more Oscars for women than any other director! He’s been called everything from a borsch-belt comedian to Ingmar Bergman junior. Yet still he creates masterworks well into his 70’s.
    M3 falls into his lesser B grade films. B for him, A for anyone else. The films to see(to start with), Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters, and the often overlooked Zelig. But that’s his early work. There is a later period begun with Match Point.
    It would be great to talk over the fine points of Allen’s films. His use of Psychology, Greek Theatre, and Sex. There is no finer Screenwriter, who honed his craft on early TV and the Broadway stage. High thee Hither to a cathedral of cinema and make amends!

    • So, I take it you’re a fan? 😀

      Annie Hall has been on my need-to-see list for a while, as well as just the general idea of seeing more Woody Allen films. They’ll turn up eventually.

      • ray brayne says:

        You gave 4 stars to one of his least enjoyable films. Imagine what the good films are like? I remember where early on you said you didn’t have funds for all these movies. Who does? My local podunk library has 6 or more Woody Allen titles on DVD. So what’s your excuse? Face it. You have a bias against his flix. I know it’s out there. Allen’s films are whimpy, Allen’s films are too brainy, too talky. I know Midnight in Paris turned a lot of people on to Allen for the first time. They were surprised he was that good. I was surprised too, he’s been that good for 45 years!

        • I gave 4 stars to a film you say is one of his least enjoyable… but I’m also sometimes contrary in my likings, so who knows? 😀

          I live out of town, so I effectively don’t have a local library — a library card for the nearest one would cost me about $50 a year, which I haven’t been able to justify for a while. (Actually, it’s probably more by now; it’s been at least 7 years since I checked.)

          At any rate, I have no bias against Allen’s films, they just haven’t crossed my path. I don’t care if a film is talky or brainy (I like smart films), as long as they’re interesting. This was. As for wimpy, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that as a criticism of his films… Woody Allen himself, yes, but I don’t think even he’d deny that one. Doesn’t affect the films.

        • ray brayne says:

          Wow. Now I am shocked. Library’s free here(Ct.) tax supported and state wide. If my local doesn’t have it, the state system hunts it down and sends it to the local. Free books, music, movies, museum passes, Kindle downloads, they even help do taxes. But I digress. Your education lacks Woody Allen’s knowledge. Bone up!

        • The libraries around here are supported by municipal taxes, so they’re free to the public — of the city. Since I’m outside city limits, I don’t pay city taxes, and therefore I’m not eligible to use it for free. If I lived in town, it’d be different (but then, if I lived in town, I’d also find Redbox a lot more convenient as well, so other things would be different too.)

  4. Will says:

    Woah, your first Woody Allen movie! Congrats! That’s amazing that you went this long and never saw one. He’s one of my favorites and from your enjoyment of this, I’d say you might become a fan yet.

    I know this one doesn’t have the best rep with many, but I LOVE Manhattan Murder Mystery, It’s funny that the library came up in the previous comments, because I used to borrow the VHS of this over and over during my “discovery of Allen” phase a number of years ago. I’ve always found it hilarious.

    Looking forward to your take on any other Allen films you run across!

    • I suppose I should clarify that this is the first Woody Allen directed film I’ve seen; I have seen him act before, in the parody version of Casino Royale. But I think we all know there’s something different about a film that he’s directing as opposed to just acting in.

      I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more opportunities to check out his films. A lot of them sound interesting, and of course Annie Hall has such a reputation that it’s pretty much obligatory to check it out at some point.

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