Woody's Funny . . . Again

Posted: August 20, 1993

Given Woody Allen's ascendency to national male mid-life crisis whipping boy, I think there was a tacit assumption that Allen would suspend his career, or at least move it to France, which would amount to the same thing.

And yet here he is, small as life, in "Manhattan Murder Mystery," his funniest movie in many years, although to say it is funnier than "Alice" and ''Shadows and Fog" does not shower Allen with praise.

Allen and Diane Keaton play a New York couple, Larry and Carol Lipton, whose dull married routine is broken when a neighbor dies suddenly. Carol intuitively suspects the woman's husband of foul play. There is no evidence to support her belief, and Larry accuses her of manufacturing this drama in order to avoid the mounting problems created by their flagging romantic life.

Their bickering provides a forum for the kind of joke-writing that Allen (and collaborator Marshall Brickman) perfected in "Manhattan," "Annie Hall" and Allen's early comedies.

The movie also reunites Allen with the actress who complements him best. Keaton's appearance here is heartening not only because she and Allen have a rare, genuine comic chemistry, but also because it seems like an endearing, disarming gesture of loyalty on Keaton's part. (Allen shot the movie at the height of the publicity surrounding his split from Mia Farrow and his affair with Farrow's daughter.)

Keaton's Carol is a more mature but still scatterbrained version of Annie Hall. Carol's amatuer sleuthing turns up clues that seem to incriminate the dead woman's husband. Allen is initially incredulous and appalled at his wife's behavior. His coolness leads Keaton to a more receptive partner, a playwright (Alan Alda) who wants to seduce her. Allen meanwhile, is resisting the come-ons of an aggressive novelist (Anjelica Huston).

The overlong narrative sputters frequently but is rescued at nearly every turn by another Allen one-liner. This serves as a reminder that while Allen is not a visually compelling director or a deft plotter, his talent for dialogue has made him an enduring figure in American movies.

His pretensions as an artiste, however, continue to annoy. Allen was justly pilloried for his sickness-inducing hand-held camera work in "Husbands and Wives." He clings defiantly to the same technique here. What it's meant to add to the drama, only Allen knows.

Neither does the movie's comic tone conceal Allen's deepening, somewhat bitter withdrawal from the world around him. In "Manhattan Murder Mystery" there is an unintentional but keen sense of Allen's separation from other types of people - from immigrants, from the poor, from younger generations,

from the great unwashed.

Allen's Manhattan has always been rarified - the Manhattan that one sees

from the window of a limo with Gershwin emanating from the CD player. In ''Manhattan Murder Mystery," Allen's character attends the opera, sits rinkside at Rangers games, dines at 21 and Elaine's, boasts of the expensive cashmere sweater he purchased at Brooks Brothers, makes references to his ''country house," and belittles domestic help not once but three times.

And yet there is something liberating about the film.

Could it be the jokes?

Could it be Keaton's return?

Or could it be that Farrow, who has all the charisma of a drowning victim, is no longer in his movies?

To imagine Farrow in Keaton's place is to imagine "Manhattan Murder Mystery" as another Allen bomb.

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY * * 1/2

Produced by Robert Greenhut, directed by Woody Allen, written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, distributed by TriStar Pictures.

Running Time: 108 minutes

Larry Lipton - Woody Allen

Carol Lipton - Diane Keaton

Ted - Alan Alda

Marcia Fox - Anjelica Huston

Paul House - Jerry Adler

Lillian House - Lynn Cohen

Helen Moss - Melanie Norris

Parents Guide: (PG)

Showing at: Area theaters

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