Here’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.
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.
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.