Manhattan Murder Mystery (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

What happens when a bored wife thinks her kindly old neighbor commits a murder? Woody Allen attempts to answer the question in his latest cinematic endeavor, Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton) and her husband Larry (Woody Allen) are caught in a routine, commonplace marriage -- until Carol turns into Nancy Drew following the death of a neighbor. It all seems like a open-and-shut case of a heart attack, and the police aren't thinking foul play, but Carol becomes suspicious when the widower of the dead woman (Jerry Adler) doesn't mourn "enough" ("What should he do", asks Larry, "walk down the street sobbing?"). With the help of Ted (Alan Alda), a close friend who encourages her sleuthing, she begins to assemble "clues" to fit her pet theory of a murder. But the evidence is weak, and Larry becomes concerned that his wife is obsessed with a macabre fantasy. He tries to be the voice of reason, but when no one listens to him, he ends up playing along.

Part of the fun of Manhattan Murder Mystery is guessing whether or not Lillian House was murdered, as Carol believes, or simply died of a heart attack. In a sense, that's the mystery of the film, and Woody Allen brings across the solution with his characteristic mix of madcap comedy and on-target realism.

In 1979, director Allen made Manhattan, a movie that many critics and fans consider to be his greatest effort. Between then and now, Diane Keaton has been absent from Allen's films, and her return in Murder Mystery is a welcome change from helium-voiced Mia Farrow. Keaton has a breezy, energetic personality, and it's hard to imagine anyone else doing nearly as much with the character of Carol (even though this part was originally conceived with Farrow in mind, and wasn't re-written following the cast change). One need only look at the Allen/Keaton and Allen/Farrow collaborations to determine which pairing worked better, and Murder Mystery merely reinforces this conclusion.

Some claim that to have seen one Woody Allen picture is to have seen them all. To say that not only vastly oversimplifies things, but does a great injustice to the individuality of each of Allen's projects. Sure, there are a number of themes that he returns to like a comfortable chair, and the character he plays rarely vary from a basic neurotic type, but each of his films -- even those that fail (take Shadows and Fog, for instance) -- offers something fresh and unique.

Husbands and Wives, Allen's previous picture, is a drama with humorous elements. Manhattan Murder Mystery is closer to a straightforward comedy, providing more laughs than anything Allen has done in a while (he claims to have "indulged" himself with this movie). He pushes all the buttons from wit to slapstick, and rarely comes up empty. If there's a serious side to Murder Mystery, it's only to be expected. After all, the director has a reputation to maintain, and the movie's principal subject -- death -- isn't usually a laugh-a-minute riot. Allen also takes a look at love, as the twenty-year marriage of Carol and Larry is put under the microscope.

Film buffs will find the usual number of references to look for, although these are perhaps more explicit than in many Allen movies, and include Double Indemnity, Rear Window, and The Lady from Shanghi. There certainly may be others, as Allen has a habit of putting more into his films than anyone can hope to get in one sitting.

A word has to be said about the annoying cinematography of Carlo Di Palma, who returns after causing audiences motion-sickness with his wobbly, hand-held camerawork in Husbands and Wives. While the intention is obviously to draw the viewer into the film, it actually has the opposite effect; the camera cannot compensate the way the human eye can. Admittedly, his methods here seem less distracting than in the previous film, although this could be a case of exposure breeding immunity.

Woody Allen is rarely a big commercial draw, and whether his off-screen antics will boost his box-office take remains to be seen, but Manhattan Murder Mystery may be his most accessible film since Hannah and Her Sisters. This movie is still pure Allen, but the humor is broad-based, and the "quirkiness" often associated with the director is kept to a minimum. Frankly, it's been years since I've enjoyed the director's work this much.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (United States, 1993)

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, Anjelica Houston, Jerry Adler
Screenplay: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Cinematography: Carlo DiPalma
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1993-08-20
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1