Woody Makes a Killing

Welcome home, Woody. We've missed you.
Manhattan Murder Mystery marks the return to form of the reigning king of one-liners, Woody Allen, and his reluctant queen, Diane Keaton. If the year's ugliest custody battle accomplished nothing else, at least it scratched Mia Farrow from the lineup and reunited Annie and Alvy (not to mention cowriter Marshall Brickman, who also was on board for three other Allen-Keaton projects, Sleeper, Annie Hall, and Manhattan). Let the gibes begin!

"Save a little craziness for menopause."
"I love a hotel that's got a lot of blue powder sprinkled along the baseboard."

"There's nothing wrong with you that couldn't be cured with a little Prozac and a polo mallet."

Bang, bang, bang. Set 'em up and shoot 'em down. Nobody does it better than the Woodman. (Except, perhaps, the Brickman?)

Mystery has all the elements Allen fans have come to expect: neurotic leads, faltering relationships, affairs sparked but never consummated, New York City as the ultimate romantic backdrop. There's even Alan Alda in the familiar Tony Roberts best friend role. The plot is part farce, part film noir. In vintage Woody Allen fashion, the implausibility of the story line is part of the fun.

It's been sixteen years since Annie Hall; both Allen, 57, and Keaton, ten years his junior, look it. They play a married couple with a son in college, whose relationship has atrophied. Allen is Larry, an editor at a large publishing house who finds himself increasingly drawn to an adventurous, poker-playing author named Marsha, a role baked to smoldering perfection by Anjelica Huston. Meanwhile, recently divorced Ted, a long-time family friend (Alda in the usual Roberts role), is putting the moves on Keaton's Carol, who is convinced that her kindly old neighbor, Mr. House, has murdered his wife. Larry thinks the bizarre theory is a sign his wife has gone around the bend; Ted offers support and encouragement. Larry and Carol are both reluctant to jump ship, but...

Cowardly to the core, a hopeless bumbler (maybe he goes to the well once too often with the butterfingers schtick, but he does it so well you almost have to forgive him), and an inveterate worrier, Larry is the funny Woody. He offers classic bits as hilarious as anything in the comedian's ouevre; watch him panic when an elevator stalls, or blanche when he realizes a blackmail scheme is backfiring. By contrast, Keaton plays it fairly straight, but still amuses. The couple's patented sputtering repartee and constant verbal sparring have lost little of their charm with age (or their capacity to irritate, depending on your point of view). The wacky chemistry is still there.

And so the race is on. Will Larry sleep with Marsha before Ted beds Carol? Or will the stodgy husband recognize his wife's obsession with their neighbor as a cry for help and save the day (and the marriage)? Allen is one of the few American directors who routinely contradicts Hollywood formula. Relationships rarely survive in his films; happy endings are even more uncommon. After Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, you expect the worst.

Not this time. Just when you think you're settling in for a leisurely drive, Manhattan Murder Mystery punches the accelerator and leaves you, to paraphrase Larry, with adrenaline leaking out your ears. It's a nice trick -- Allen leads you in one direction, then gives the story line unexpected twists.

No one's going to mistake Manhattan Murder Mystery for vintage noir, like the clips from Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai that punctuate the goings-on. Nor is it as "deep" as Allen's recent work with Farrow. But the Keaton-Allen-Brickman team is back after a decade and a half, and near the top of their game. After a summer of Son-in-laws and Weekend at Bernie's IIs, that's serious comic relief.

 
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