When Woody Allen commits 'Murder,' a fun time is had by all

August 20, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

At last: a "Manhattan" project that doesn't produce a bomb!

Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" isn't the best movie Woody Allen ever made but it's far from the worst. Its cardinal feature is its lack of ambition. In fact, it feels like the 10th step in a 12-step recovery program ("10. Make a nice movie."), a pleasant, easy project with enough zingers to leave them laughing in the cheap seats but otherwise unclouded with angst, guilt, misery, doubt and suffering, all those lugubrious demons with which Allen has wrestled for the past few years.

LTC The other news, I suppose, is that, following the highly publicized meltdown in relationships, Diane Keaton has replaced Mia Farrow as the No. 1 woman in the Allen pantheon. You're asking: How could they tell? I don't know. I couldn't. Aren't they the same? Keaton is less intense and intellectual, somehow a bit more haute bourgeoise, but just as dithery and grating. Let God sort them out.

The plot is a marshmallow that flirts now and then with a genuine idea or emotion but then flees quickly. Our heroes are the Liptons, Carol and Larry, an upscale, intellectual couple (he's an editor at HarperCollins, she used to work in advertising but now may open a restaurant); they are surprised one night in the elevator by the Houses, their corny, vaguely old-fashioned neighbors and invited in for a drink. The Houses (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen) live in a decidedly dumpy apartment (apartment snobbism is a dreadful Allen hallmark) and Mr. House even -- God, it's so grim! -- collects stamps!

But then, one day, the seemingly healthy Mrs. House drops dead of a heart attack. It's just enough of an anomaly to set off Carol, who's soon concocting conspiracy theories about "perfect murders" with a divorced former colleague of Larry's, Ted (Alan Alda). Allen is at his subtlest in suggesting why Carol is so entranced by the possibility of the crime -- it's actually a safe, surrogate affair (with Ted) which provides her with a jolt of phony excitement that brings some meaning to a life and a relationship that has become largely zestless.

In fact, Allen is far more interested in the issue of how the various members of the cast use the murder mystery than he is in solving the murder mystery itself. Its custodianship passes among them, from Ted and Carol to Marcia (Angelica Huston as a novelist whom Larry is editing and Ted is dating) and on to Larry himself, who finally becomes the sole custodian. But whoever engages it . . . loves it! It's almost an aphrodisiac, like a free hour with Dr. Ruth, which magically restores the oomph to relationships gone oomphless.

As for the mystery, it's a mere farrago of gimcracks ripped off from more serious practitioners of the art. There's a little of this and a little of that and a lot of the old gentleman named Hitchcock.

And can some reader verify my impression that on a bus where Carol glimpses the supposedly dead Mrs. House the word "Vertigo" is embossed, in homage to Hitchcock's great mystery of that name which also deployed the gambit of the maybe-not-really-dead corpse? Allen makes a game attempt to sort it all out at the end, kind of like the summing up after a game of Clue, but the plot stubbornly remains a collection of old movie bits rather than a story.

What counts, though, is the sense of merriment that attends to the proceedings. Allen even manages to work in a gunfight, though, as might be expected, his shoot-'em-up is ironic rather than literal -- a supple, quite amusing tribute to Orson Welles' great fun house blow-out in "Lady From Shanghai," which is used much in the way he used the last few minutes of "Casablanca" in "Play It Again, Sam."

But, best of all, is that the Woodman himself has returned as a persona. The schlemiel lives: that chronic whiner and wisecracker whose most favorite target is his own inadequacies. Woody's Larry offers an endless tapestry of shrewd one-liners in that nasal voice with those far Coney Island inflections, which has become in urbane culture pretty much the voice of modern man. It's almost as rewarding as seeing the Duke on the big screen at the Senator; one feels equally as privileged and reverent in the shadows of such a monumental valley of icons.

'Manhattan Murder Mystery'

Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Alan Alda and Angelica Huston

Directed by Woody Allen

Released by TriStar

Rated PG

***

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