Thursday, June 6, 2019


The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen’s movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion and leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
This movie’s central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the frisky girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, or Jean Arthur) is in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she’s such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it’s Keaton, back to form after The Lemon Sisters (1990) and the atrocious Father of the Bride (1991), leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people’s apartments to scout for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murder Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded messages on a cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation. Naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the “conversation” hits a snag and ends up sounding like gobbledygook. It plays better than it sounds—it’s a sidesplitter. The last scene, too, is delightful—a climactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (it was a mistake, however, for Allen to project The Lady from Shanghai on one of the screens to underscore the idea).

Manhattan Murder Mystery is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a good time watching Keaton and Allen ham it up and banter inventively—they make marvelous company—while old movie references fly back and forth. Things are close to the spirit of the madcap ’30s here—a lot closer in spirit than Peter Bogdanovich’s nagging, largely witless What’s Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

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