Woody Allen once described himself as “thin but fun,” and the same could be said for his latest effort, “Manhattan Murder Mystery.” Light, insubstantial and utterly devoid of the heavier themes Allen has grappled with in most of his recent outings, this confection keeps the chuckles coming and is mainstream enough in sensibility to be a modest success.
The commercial wild card, of course, remains whether the public, and even longtime Allen fans, have turned off to the idea of seeing his films in the wake of recent events. In an unprecedented move for one of his pictures, TriStar held nationwide sneaks over the weekend in advance of the Aug. 18 opening.
Aside from his “Oedipus Wrecks” episode from “New York Stories,” this represents Allen’s first flat-out comedy in nearly a decade. In its feather-weight frivolity and disconnectedness from any recognizable reality, it resembles nothing so much as the goofy backstage murder mellers of the 1930s, complete with vanishing corpses, high society settings, bickering leads and self-consciously theatrical denouement.
Writing with Marshall Brickman for the first time since the great duo of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” Allen opens with an echo of those film as he backdrops the glittering Gotham skyline with Bobby Short’s rousing rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York.”
Allen and Diane Keaton play Larry and Carol Lipton, a long-married pair whose next-door neighbors are the chatty middle-aged couple Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen). Suddenly, Lillian drops dead of a heart attack, but Carol is suspicious of how cheerful Paul seems afterward and, having just seen “Double Indemnity,” becomes obsessed with the idea that he actually murdered his wife.
Snooping around in Paul’s apartment, Carol finds evidence to support her suspicions. When Mrs. House turns up dead again in another location, things become stranger still, and it is up to fiction writer Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston) to explain it all to the audience.
A great many of the scenes are devoted to Carol spinning her wild theories about what actually happened and pursuing her hunches, while her husband grudgingly accompanies her, complaining all the while that she’s crazy.
Carol finds a more sympathetic ear in bachelor writer friend Ted (Alan Alda in the old Tony Roberts part), who suspects she may not be happy with Larry and gently comes on to her. For his part, Larry deflects the interest of the sex-minded Marcia and sets Ted up with her.
“Manhattan Murder Mystery” is as neurotic a farce as can be imagined, and Allen and Brickman have amusingly festooned the plot with an array of topical and psychological concerns.
The heart attack that sets the story in motion unleashes a flood of jokes about diet, exercise and cholesterol, and Allen’s typical phobias are on display as prominently as ever.
In fact, the one-note nagging and complaining of Allen’s character become grating after a spell, and while the film doesn’t invite deep scrutiny of the characters’ interactions, the apparent sexlessness of the Liptons’ marriage and their negligible, basically unbelievable relationship with their college-age son do open up some dead-end avenues of inquiry.
Stylistically, Allen and lenser Carlo Di Palma persist here in the overboard hand-held, verite look they initiated on “Husbands and Wives,” and it seems more inappropriate and pointless here. By contrast, the dramatic finale turns toward precise visual stylization.
Keaton nicely handles her sometimes buffoonish central comedic role, but few strenuous demands are placed on the rest of the agreeable cast. Almost continuously humorous to varying degrees, pic can be forgotten as easily as it can be digested.