If prizes are ever given out for stoicism on the American screen, Woody Allen is not going to be a contender. Possibly the most celebrated complainer in Hollywood history, he has simultaneously raised the status of whining and created serious laughter at the expense of his collective miseries.
Even as artful a creator as Allen, however, can overdo things, and in "Manhattan Murder Mystery" (AMC Century 14 today, citywide Friday) he pretty much does. Clever and amusing though it often is, "Murder" is also Allen's whiniest film to date, and your appreciation of its pleasures will fluctuate according to your tolerance for his Angst .
It's not only that the character Allen has written for himself wails more intensely than usual, but also that this film doesn't see fit, as for instance "Hannah and Her Sisters" did, to surround him with more companionable actors.
While Allen in that picture stayed partially in the background and shared space with the easy-to-take Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey, "Murder" places him front and center and pairs him with Diane Keaton and Alan Alda, definitely not a day in the country.
Still, there is much to enjoy in this light PG-rated film, though giggles will be heard more than outright laughter. And don't search for even a hint of the poignancy and seriousness the writer-director brought to "Husbands and Wives." Diverting is all this movie aspires to be.
Set in Allen's trademark Manhattan, "Murder" showcases the Liptons, married long enough (nearly 20 years) to make allowances for each other's foibles. Carol (Keaton), a would-be restaurateur, promises to attend a Rangers hockey game if Larry (Allen), a book editor, agrees to a night at the opera. Larry, however, invariably cancels out. "I can't listen to Wagner," he confesses. "I get the urge to conquer Poland."
Exiting their elevator, the Liptons encounter their elderly neighbors, Paul House (Jerry Adler) and his wife, Lillian (Lynn Cohen). Much to Larry's displeasure, Carol drags him over to socialize, an evening that starts with Paul displaying his prize stamp collection and ends with both Larry and Carol worrying that they too are becoming old and stale.
Shortly thereafter, Lillian House dies of a heart attack, and shortly thereafter that, Carol starts to get suspicious. Why didn't the wife mention any heart condition, why does the husband look so cheerful and composed despite his nominal bereavement? "We could be living next door to a murderer," Carol gasps. "New York is a melting pot" is Larry's deadpan reply.
Is Carol prescient or a woman with a hyperactive imagination? Her husband, who resists the notion of becoming half of a Borscht Belt Nick and Nora Charles, leans strongly toward the latter conclusion. But Carol, who finds her suspicions exhilarating, refuses to give up and instead turns to recently divorced screenwriter Ted (Alda), an old flame who still finds her attractive. And as Carol and Ted get more intoxicated with their detecting, Larry shows an increasing interest in Marcia Fox, one of his more controversial writers (very wittily played by Anjelica Huston).
While this farce situation is often funny and enlivened by movie references to everything from "Vertigo" to "The Lady From Shanghai," it is also periodically tiresome. Unshared obsessions, even comic ones, are rarely more than moderately entertaining, though one wonders what Mia Farrow, originally cast for the Keaton role but replaced for well-publicized reasons, would have done with this particular mind-set.
And by employing himself as the most reluctant of detectives, always on the edge of hysteria and screeching "What are you doing?" every other minute, Allen has given his movie a frantic, desperate air it could have done without. With a couple like this investigating a possible murder, audiences may end up feeling as victimized as the corpse.
'Manhattan Murder Mystery'
Alan Alda: Ted
Woody Allen: Larry Lipton
Anjelica Huston: Marcia Fox
Diane Keaton: Carol Lipton
Jerry Adler: Paul House
A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Woody Allen. Producer Robert Greenhut. Executive producers Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe. Screenplay Allen, Marshall Brickman. Cinematographer Carlo di Palma. Editor Susan E. Morse. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Production design Santo Loquasto. Art director Speed Hopkins. Set decorator Susan Bode. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
MPAA-rated PG (mild language and for elements of violence in a comic murder mystery).