When there are such large gaps in your cinematic history as there are in mine, you have to forgive yourself for thinking that it was radical that Ross from Friends lost his marriage because his wife discovered that she was actually a lesbian. But if you had watched Manhattan, Woody Allen’s celebrated ‘comedy’ about life and love in New York at any time after its 1979 release you would probably have laughed out loud when the story of Ross Geller’s marital woes came up, and thought, ‘oh hey, I should probably go check out Manhattan again.’
And if you had rewatched the movie around the time further details were revealed about how Ross and Carol’s relationship went south you would realise that Ross’s agreeing to participate in an ill-advised threesome is another idea that appears in Manhattan! Imagine my surprise. Maybe all those Bollywood folk who justify their ripping off of someone else’s ideas are really just keeping those ideas alive for new generations and filmgoers from different geographical realities. Hmm…
The thing about Manhattan though is that I could just as easily imagine it working very well as a radio play. I am not familiar with enough of Mr. Allen’s work to know if this is how most of his movies are–I don’t think so, because I thought his Midnight in Paris was pretty engaging visually–but this one I could easily have just listened to, and got the whole story.
And the story is simple really: Mr. Allen plays Isaac, a 42-year-old writer who is dating a 17-year-old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), and he spends an awful lot of time reminding her of exactly how much younger than him she is. He quits a decent job to focus on a book he wants to write, but really he’d rather do anything else but write. He hangs out with a married couple named Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne) and frets about a tell-all memoir his ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) is writing about her former life as a heterosexual. Isaac even has a young son with this woman, a son who is being raised by Jill and her lover. And the final piece of the puzzle: Yale is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), a woman whom Isaac detests at first, and starts falling for soon enough.
The only other thing you need to know about the movie is that the characters, major and minor, talk a lot – about all the things that bother, excite, intrigue or inflame them. There is a lot of talking in this movie. And some walking. In fact all the walking to discuss their grievances that is prevalent in hipster shows like Love probably also owe a debt to the manner in which Mr. Allen’s characters worked out their issues in Manhattan.
Some of the talk was funny, there was always a bit of drama, and the thought that occurred to me most frequently while watching this movie was that it reminded me of the desi web series Pitchers and Permanent Roommates produced by The Viral Fever Labs. I have long noted that Hindi movies in particular feature a lot of telling and not that much showing. More often than not it is extremely literal, with zero subtext. TVF’s writer Biswapati Sarkar has largely managed to avoid that particular pothole but I couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Allen’s movie – like a lot of desi cinema could use more showing, and less telling.
Still I learnt something new from watching this movie, and for that I am glad.