Larry (Woody Allen) and Carol (Diane Keaton) sit with their
potentially murderous neighbor in Manhattan Murder Mystery.
Few would dispute that Woody Allen's most fertile period was the late 1970s. Annie Hall and Manhattan are two of cinema's most valued treasures, and for good reason. They are transcendent films, full of several magical moments. Allen's 1980s pictures are also (mostly) exceptional. Crimes and Misdemeanors might be my favorite Allen picture, and Hannah and Her Sisters is another near-perfect movie.
Once the calendar turned to the 1990s, however, he was a little less successful. Take Manhattan Murder Mystery. It should have been a classic, considering it was the director's first reteaming with former muse Diane Keaton since Manhattan. However, it's a tepid motion picture—one that's more grating than charming, more boring than entertaining.
Murder mysteries are inherently interesting to me, especially when you throw in characters like Larry and Carol Lipton (Woody Allen and Diane Keaton). When these bored New Yorkers suspect an elderly neighbor (Jerry Adler) has killed his wife—despite the common belief that she had a heart attack—they find themselves at each other's throats and increasingly afraid for their safety and sanity. Carol, especially, seems to be cracking up, but she finds comfort in the form of Ted (Alan Alda), a single friend who harbors secret feelings for Carol. Larry, meanwhile, is growing increasingly frustrated with his wife's obsession over this situation, so he confides in an author friend, Marcia (Anjelica Huston).
If the film started out as well as it ends, it would've been a success. The final half-hour of Manhattan Murder Mystery is a lot of fun, and includes a brilliant climax, straight out of The Lady from Shanghai. The main problem with the first two-thirds is that its composed primarily of Larry and Carol arguing over her suspicions of and actions toward their potentially murderous neighbor. Keaton, you'd think, could never be this irritating on screen, but she is. When Woody Allen isn't playing a film's most annoying character, you know you've got a problem on your hands. That's not to say Larry isn't grating. On the contrary, actually. He's just not as bad as his wife, and considering they're our main characters, it's hard to have all that much fun.
Once they stop arguing (quite suddenly, actually), the film takes a turn for the better. But it never reaches the level of entertainment that it strives for or that you want it to. It's amateurish, not something I say lightly when it comes to Allen, but it's true. A little more time and thought could have made this a really enjoyable movie, but as with most of Allen's lesser works, it feels rushed and a bit incomplete.
So skip this one, unless you're a Woody completist, like myself. He's got so many wonderful films that there's no point wasting time with silliness like Manhattan Murder Mystery.