The Soul of “Manhattan”

I posted this on my tumblr last week. I think it’s appropriate for this blog. 🙂

Today, I watched “Manhattan” in a theatre for the first time. I love this movie. It’s a must-see for lovers of New York.

However, while watching it on big screen, I began pondering something I’ve long noticed, but had never given much thought: are these Woody Allen’s least likeable lead characters? From a middle-aged man having an affair with a 17-year old, to an insecure, obnoxiously pseudo-intellectual journalist sleeping with a whiny, indecisive married man, these characters are not a loveable bunch. The most likeable is Tracy, the aforementioned high schooler who knows what she wants and is quickly exasperated at how much everyone else overcomplicates their emotions.

“Manhattan” stands out among Allen’s widely acknowledged “three greatest films”: “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Everyone has their own favorite Allen film, but these three always rise to the top of the general conversation.

“Annie Hall’s” appeal is easy to see. It’s unabashedly romantic, wry as hell, bittersweet, and hilarious. It rings true to anyone who has been in love and who, even when it hurts the most, would never consider the idea that it’s not worth it. It’s the purest distillation of everything Woody Allen does well as a filmmaker. Jokes and quotable lines fly from every direction, the characters are zany but completely relatable, and the story might break your heart a little, but the trip there was worth it.

“Hannah and her Sisters” is Allen’s Thanksgiving movie. It’s as close to an epic as he’ll ever make, telling the story of a loving if volcanic family and their travails over the course of one year. Whereas most Allen movies are a bit too neurotic or small in scope to have widespread appeal, “Hannah and Her Sisters” is a rare film from him that tries to encompass the full range of human emotions that a family might feel over a year. Everyone has faults, but in the end, they overcome them for the family. Even the film’s most morally questionable characters, Hannah’s husband Elliot and sister Lee, who have an affair unbeknownst to her, end the film on a warm and fuzzy note, having accepted their wrongdoings and moving on to better, brighter futures.

So what about “Manhattan?” Why do I love this film so damn much when I wouldn’t want to have dinner with its characters? Well, I think it’s because they’re so sorry. I don’t mean apologetic. I’m speaking from my Southern roots. They’re flawed as hell and they know it. They want to do the right thing. They’re all driven by their impulses, and dammit, they’re in Manhattan which makes it better in the end.

Woody Allen’s stroke of genius with “Manhattan” was casting his beloved city as the main character, with its characters constantly turning to it for solace. No matter how much they contrive ways to break their own hearts, NYC will make it right. Manhattan will be there for them. It’s perfectly fine to judge these characters. I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with them. But one look at the Brooklyn Bridge at dusk, and I’d probably plop down right next to them, “Rhapsody in Blue” blocking out the sounds of the city.


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About johnmichaelmaximilian

Freelance writer from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Movies are my favorite thing.

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