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« In Which There Is Always A Murder We Should Be Solving »

There's a Murderer in the Building


Two things I'm desperate to have happen before I die:

1. Find myself the reluctant amateur detective in a quaint real life murder mystery involving an eccentric cast of characters. I want to be the traveling detective a tad reluctant to get involved like Poirot, rather than the person giddy for each new homicide you encounter every place you go. That way lays madness and suddenly I'm Jessica Fletcher and with a body count rivaling some marquee diseases.

2. Find myself upper middle class rich at the very least, working in a creative field, probably living in New York, and enjoying sherry and decadent dessert with my equally rich friends from the arts after we've come back from plays and working on our novels. We'll complain about Wagner, talk about missed chances and what a mistake that last vacation with our ex-wives were (because those ex-wives were a mistake), contemplate opening a restaurant, and find ourselves bored and looking for excitement.

Manhattan Murder Mystery is both of these, in classic Woody Allen style, but also about a third thing: the death of excitement in a marriage.

Allen is Larry Lipton and in a grand reunion with his Annie Hall co-star, Diane Keaton is his wife, Carol. They’ve been together for a while, Larry’s a book editor, Carol’s currently unemployed and bored, especially with their son off to college. They humor each other, Larry dragging Carol to hockey games and Carol dragging Larry to the opera, which he later forces them to walk out of. "I can't listen to that much Wagner, ya know?" he tells his wife, "I start to get the urge to conquer Poland."

On their way home from one of these outings, they encounter their next door neighbors, the Houses, who invite them in for coffee. When you’re old and dying slowly in marriage, this is what you do: drag others into your misery for a short time and give them dessert and force your stamp collection upon them. The next night though, Mrs. House is dead, and Carol suspects foul play. Larry is comically nervously unconvinced, but Carol won’t let it pass. Murder! Right next door! It’s exciting and new, two things she’s desperate for in life at the moment, and Larry remains nonplussed at first.

Carol: I don't understand why you're not more fascinated with this! I mean, we could be living next door to a murderer, Larry.”

Larry: New York is a melting pot! I'm used to it!

Carol’s need for excitement in getting to the bottom of this mystery is fed by the couple’s friend, the recently divorced and wonderful Alan Alda, who’s willing to become her partner just in snooping and sleuthing, but in a possible restaurateuring venture as well. And perhaps more than that as he reminds her while on stakeout of a time years earlier when they could’ve cheated on their spouses together.

Is Carol interested in the advances of Alan Alda’s Ted? Probably not, but her growing closeness with him spurns Larry into action, desperate to stop the slowly growing rift in his marriage and join in on the mystery. And that’s when the film really takes off. People will tell you that this is a minor film, which isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also a treat for fans of the Allen catalogue. Some things to especially enjoy:

First and foremost, the behind the scenes story. The film was shot in summer of 1992, in the height of Allen’s breakup with Mia Farrow and the brutal custody battle that was fought afterward. You have to more than assume that is responsible for the theme of romantic deception and betrayal throughout the film.

At the last minute, Diane Keaton stepped into her role, which was originally written for Farrow and because of the timing and the complicated plot points, couldn’t be rewritten for her. It makes for fascinating viewing as the always perfect and electric Keaton makes Allen the straight man for the first half of the movie.

The second half, however, is not only an amazing madcap tour through Larry’s phobias as the couple discovers bodies and attempts to bluff a murderer, but it’s also a treat for mystery and noir fans as bodies are discovered along with dopplegangers and double crosses.

Of course, the movie is a love letter to New York (and if we couldn’t guess that, we’re told as much in the opening musical number, Cole Porter’s "I Happen To Like New York"), but in some ways it’s an imaginary sequel to Annie Hall, not just with the reuniting of Keaton and Allen, but because Anhedonia, Hall’s original title, was originally intended to be a mystery, but those elements were later removed by Allen and co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman to be reused here.

Just as unshocking, this isn’t just a love letter to New York, it’s a love letter to cinema in general, combining Bergman with Wilder and not just referencing Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, but literally forcing characters into a shootout in it.

We can blame this film for Zack Braff, who has his debut here in a brief scene as Larry and Carol’s son whose away at college. Oh, if only he stayed at college. There’s also blink and you’ll miss them short appearances by Joy Behar and Aida Tuturro.

Speaking of tragically short appearances: Anjelica Huston is delightful here as the sexy, confident author whose Allen’s Larry is the book editor for. Her character is witty and tuned in that, even though she’s not involved in nearly enough of the action in her handful of scenes, she can still not only figure out what’s going in this mystery plot, but explain it to the other characters not once but twice.

In a nice throwaway gag, the book of Huston’s that Allen’s character is editing is called Comfort Zones. A thing like that in a Woody Allen movie will never stop being hilarious to me.

And... Alan Alda again. Perfectly sleazy. I only wish I could get away with half of his lazy lothario charm at my age. And yet, as sleazy as you suspect he is or would like to be, he comes off as harmless, getting along more perfectly in a platonic way with the women in the cast rather than the men. Even as I type that, I’m just that much closer to pronouncing this case closed and moving to New York and write plays and retire into a life as an Alan Alda-esque gadabout.

All that said, this movie makes me think that maybe my life is boring. Yours too, probably. Look at us, we’re sitting here talking about filmmakers and actors and next door there’s probably somebody being killed. There’s probably a mystery being hatched just waiting for nosy neighbors to come get to the bottom of it.

Marco Sparks is a contributor to This Recording. This is his first appearance in these pages. His blog is here, and his tumblr is here.

“For Our Elegant Caste (acoustic)” - Of Montreal (mp3)

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Reader Comments (2)

one of my favorite woodys. great piece~!

July 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervirginia

great piece~!thanks!!

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternike 6.0 air mogan

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