Saturday, April 24, 2010
From the Vault: Manhattan Murder Mystery
After two films that played like warmed-up leftovers (Husbands and Wives, Alice) and one failed exercise in style (Shadows and Fog), Woody Allen returns to form with an entertaining comic mystery.
Allen fuses disparate elements of his films and concocts Manhattan Murder Mystery, a joyously light romp that succeeds both on its own terms and as an homage to a classic genre.
The film marks the first screen teaming of Allen and Diane Keaton since 1979's Manhattan and they easily slip back into the comic rapport they generated in Annie Hall and other great comedies from the 1970s.
Keaton and Allen play a long-married Manhattan couple whose son has left the nest, leaving their lives with a bit less spark. Allen busies himself with his work as a book editor while Keaton toys with the idea of opening a restaurant.
Keaton soon finds a new diversion when the day after the spouses are invited to a neighbors for drinks for the first time, the wife drops dead and Keaton, aided by a newly divorced playwright friend (Alan Alda) becomes convicted that it was murder, not a heart attack, that did in the woman.
To divulge much more would ruin some of the mystery's fun, which is rather satisfying for what is essentially a light comedy. The details — disappearing bodies, etc. — come straight out of films like Hope and Crosby's Road pictures and various Abbott and Costello flicks. Allen and Keaton dive into neurotic modern takes on these character types with criminal glee.
Allen's direction moves the film briskly along and he does have some great sequences, ranging from the climax in a movie house while Lady from Shanghai plays in the background to an investigative trip to a molten steel warehouse.
Nice, quieter moments abound as well such as a speculative dinner with Allen, Keaton, Alda and Anjelica Huston, playing one of Allen's writers, and another where Huston teaches Allen how to play poker.
One demerit to Allen's direction comes from his continued misuse of hand-held cameras. While the effect doesn't jar the viewer as much as in Husband and Wives, it seems even more out of place here.
Alda and Huston lend able comic support while Keaton's funny performance is infectious, especially when combined with Allen's priceless expressions. The script, co-written by Marshall Brickman and actually predating Annie Hall, provides a higher number of one-liners than most Allen films of late.
While Manhattan Murder Mystery doesn't rank in the highest tier of Allen's films, it is by far the funniest he's made since Broadway Danny Rose.