Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Underrated Movie #68: Manhattan Murder Mystery


Title: Manhattan Murder Mystery
Year: 1993
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston

The Story: An middle-aged New York housewife wants something more out of life, so she starts investigating a possible murder mystery to get closer to an old flame. Her husband realizes that he’d better take an interest too if he wants to keep her. They get the excitement they were looking for and more when they realize that the murder might be for real.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie got decent reviews and business, but in the public’s mind it got caught up in the drama of Woody’s personal meltdown. This seemed like another piece of the puzzle: his first movie in years without Mia Farrow, so he goes back to his old co-star Diane Keaton! Now, away from all the drama, (and now that Woody’s movies aren’t reliably great anymore) we can appreciate the movie for its own charms, which are ample.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The movie has an interesting history. Supposedly, this has basically the same story as the first draft of Annie Hall, but Woody and his collaborator, Marshall Brickman, kept expanding the background relationship until it took over the whole movie and the original mystery fell away. Fifteen years later he re-united with Brickman and Keaton to make the movie that they’d originally wanted to make.
  2. What makes it fun is that the movie now allows us to pretend that Annie and Alvy got back together after all and here they are, still in love but still zinging each other and trying to figure it all out. (with a brief appearance by Zach Braff as their son!)
  3. It seems like a simple idea but it’s hard to pull off: take the sort of story that would normally be a genre picture (a murder mystery) but make the realistic version, in which normal people choose to get wrapped up in a mystery for their own neurotic reasons and the demands of plot don’t take precedence over character development. The problem is that “genre characters” get themselves into danger far more easily than realistic characters do. If you’re unwilling to enter that “thriller space” in which people start doing crazy stuff to advance the plot, you’ve got a much harder job to do.
  4. Every time someone comes up with a new theory of the murder, the clockwork of the story moves forward, yes, but the character motivations shift too. The plot is solid but it exists mainly to complicate the sublimated attractions of the married couple and their two would-be paramours, which is a neat trick.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Despite his personal problems (or maybe because of them) Woody was really firing on all cylinders at the time. His previous movie (the last with Farrow) was Husbands and Wives and his next one (his first without a paramour-star) was Bullets Over Broadways. All three hold up well.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Maniaks!

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