Skip to the end for a quick spoiler free recommendation
After finishing Woody Allen’s Manhattan I immediately realized, I had been deftly fooled by every character, and I loved it! This movie is very good at stringing you along, just as many of the characters are strung along by one another throughout the film. Each character ends in the same place that they started, only having had the essence of their true characters outed by the end of the film. After a brief montage of New York city, the film introduces most of the main characters with a short dinner scene. This scene is crucial to understanding the movie and especially Allen’s character.
So lets break the scene down, we see Allen’s character, Isaac, drunk and rambling, he poses a question, “if the four of us were walking home over the bridge and we see a person drowning, would one of us have the nerve to jump into the icy water to save them?” He states this is a “key question” but then quickly follows that by stating that he can’t swim so he never has to face the question. Isaac’s avoidance of the question is indicative of his later actions, often avoiding confrontation whenever he can, but I think more important is how he states that it is a “key question” and still dodges it. Isaac is very hypocritical, he holds others to an unachievable standard, yet exempts himself from the same judgement for superfluous reasons. Immediately after this he lights a cigarette and is quickly criticized by Tracy, his naive teenage girlfriend, stating that he “doesn’t smoke.” Isaac wittily retorts stating, “I don’t inhale, it gives you cancer . . . but I look so incredibly handsome with a cigarette that I can’t not hold one.” This really drives home the point of the question he just asked. Isaac manages to not only subtly judge others who smoke, he also praises himself. How can smoking be bad for him if he looks so good doing it? Ultimately this scene reveals Isaac’s true nature as a severe narcissist. He holds himself so far above everyone else, which becomes more and more evident as the film goes on, all the while he may be the worst, most manipulative, cowardly one of all the characters.
Before I move onto the next most important character I would briefly like to speak about each other character present at the dinner scene. First Isaac’s teenage girlfriend Tracy, she is very bright for her age and very mature as well. She is more than just book smart as well, you can tell from Mariel Hemingway’s brilliant acting that Tracy takes in what people says, she is not quick to make a fool of herself, unlike some other characters. Despite all that Tracy has going for her she is fatally naive, she wholeheartedly believes all people will do the right thing but her largest flaw brought on by her naiveté is believing that Isaac truly loves her as she does him.
Next we have Yale, played by Michael Murphy, and more is revealed about him in the scene immediately following the dinner where the characters walk home. As we follow Isaac and Yale walking the Manhattan streets Yale tells Isaac about an affair he is having with a woman named Mary, a nervous, high strung, intellectual who he thinks he has fallen in love with. I see Yale mainly as a character to compare Isaac to once Isaac starts to date Mary himself later on, but I’ll elaborate that later. Lastly is Emily, Yale’s wife, and that’s really the whole role she plays, she is only there so that Yale and Mary’s relationship is wrong and importantly, easily judged by Isaac.
Lets finally move onto Mary, played by perfectly by Diane Keaton. I think Mary is the hardest character to understand in Manhattan, as she is purposefully confusing and contrarian for no reason. We meet Mary on a double date between Isaac and Tracy, and Yale and Mary at an art gallery. She initially comes off as nervous but once Isaac starts to speak about some art she quickly jumps in criticizing his every opinion. They quickly leave the gallery but now she is criticizing actors and directors that are well loved and it becomes clear that she is being purposefully contrarian in the hopes of coming of as intellectual. Mary is a lot like Isaac, I believe that she is also a narcissist but perhaps in less common, obvious ways than he is.
As she lists these film legends we learn that Isaac is a writer of a popular TV comedy show and that Mary actually likes it, she finds it clever. Why though? In just the next scene Isaac himself criticizes his show and even quits from writing it claiming it’s terrible. I actually think that stating her love of his show is not an act of contrarianism but instead her trying to be purposefully confusing, the other aspect of her narcissism. She does a similar thing just before the scene ends where she states, “I’m from Philadelphia, we believe in god,” and Isaac is rightfully confused. What does Philadelphia have to do with anything? While I do think its used as a way to confuse other people, I think it could also be a way for her to rationalize the way she feels. Mary is ultimately very unsure of herself because I think, more so than Isaac, she realizes that she is a narcissist but refuses to accept or understand it. This makes her want to distance herself from the way she acts. If she says “I’m from Philadelphia” it’s basically saying that she can’t control what she does or says or thinks, its just who she is and she can’t change it. While this is very subtle in this scene it becomes very obvious later on, and really becomes her most prevalent issue
I don’t want to go too in depth into every scene but I thought these introductory scenes were important to really dive into, as they are the basis for each characters actions throughout the rest of the film. I think while these aspects are present through the whole movie, there are a few key moments in the film that showcase them. First is when Yale breaks up with Mary.
A key aspect here is that Yale breaks up with her, even though for the past 30 minutes we have seen Mary spending time with Isaac and telling him that she is unsure of her and Yale’s relationship. Opposite this we have seen Yale wanting to take their relationship further, even offering to leave his wife for her. She is too narcissistic to break it off and too unsure of herself to take it any further, as Yale had wanted too. So when Yale breaks it off she has to rationalize why, it can’t possibly be anything wrong with her, she is too smart and beautiful for that. And just to make herself feel better just before she leaves she finds a reason to become hostile with Yale, after having offered him tickets to a concert he says to take Isaac with which she replies “fuck off Yale” and storms off. This scene is immediately followed by Isaac trying to console her as she claims that Yale led her on. Even though she was leading him on she couldn’t entertain the idea that she was actually in the wrong.
The next pivotal scene I think is when Isaac breaks up with Tracy so he can be with Mary. While I think this scene is very important I also think its simpler than the last scene. Isaac takes advantage of Tracy all movie, constantly demeaning her with her age and he does so again here. Isaac wants to leave Tracy so he can see Mary worry free because he isn’t the cheater that Yale is, even though hes been seeing Mary behind Yale and Tracy’s backs for most of the movie. Isaac simply tells Tracy that she is too young and it could never work between them and he poses their breakup as a good thing for her. He states that she will now be able to see many different people, broaden her horizons, but this is just a load of shit. He doesn’t care how she feels, he just knows he can trick her into an easy break up by stating the breakup is really more for her than him.
So finally Isaac and Mary are together, neither of them are cheating and they are madly in love and live happily ever after. Except their relationship only lasts for 15 minutes in the movie when its revealed that Mary has been seeing Yale again. This might be my favorite scene as its like a Mexican standoff between Mary and Isaac. They both try to act put out and try to make each other feel terrible in hopes of making the other feel bad enough to change their mind. Mary claims “I was always trouble, I told you that from the start,” she tries to shift the blame so as not to take responsibility, I mean she may as well have said “I’m from Philadelphia” again. It takes Isaac a moment to think of something to say and Mary even says she wishes he would get angry. So after a moment he says that she is making a big mistake because, “you’re preferring Yale to me that’s why.” I love this line, it’s like he has ran out of clever ways to manipulate people and he finally just says exactly what he’s thinking in a last ditch effort to make her change her mind. They go back and force for a bit but it really is an unmovable object and an unstoppable force, so what is there to do? Well Isaac goes to someone he can make feel bad and manipulate, Yale. Isaac and Yale talk but really its just a way for Isaac to shame Yale and make himself feel better.
As a last note I am surprised by how many other reviews and discussions about this movie talk about it as a love story, how sweet the ending is or how bittersweet Isaac and Mary’s relationship is. There are certainly beautiful scenes of romance in the film but I think the movie is really about what happens before and after the romance. This movie also has no good guys, no moral characters, besides Tracy I suppose but she is endlessly manipulated and emotionally tortured by Isaac, the main character. I think all this just helps make the movie all that much better though, it can be interpreted so many different ways, just like real life.
Alright I can’t go any further, I think I have made my point and this review is absolutely too long already and I never even talked about the amazing cinematography or music.
Alright finally if you want a quick recommendation, watch this movie. The dialogue is witty, the cinematography is beautiful, the characters are deep, and the whole movie is just an enjoyable one to watch.