It's pure pleasure to welcome back the crack comic team of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton for the first time since the 70s. But look for Manhattan Murder Mystery to be underrated as a trifle. In the context of Allen's career, it cuts deeper. Few people realize that the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, Allen and Keaton's most popular film, was planned as a mystery. The first title was Anhedonia, a melancholic condition that still afflicts Allen. For all the giddy romantic fun, Mystery is a strange hybrid — a love story that opens with a reference to a Bob Hope comedy and ends with a clip from Orson Welles' Lady From Shanghai, a film noir about betrayal in love. Allen has crafted a wacky whodunit about the killing of relationships.
At first, the jokes are broad, some recycled, and the structure seems jerry-built. Carol (Keaton) persuades her husband, Larry (Allen), that kindly old Paul House (Jerry Adler) in the apartment next door has killed his wife (Lynn Cohen) to run off with a young actress (Melanie Norris). Nervous Larry hangs back while ditzy Carol plays snoop. Picture I Love Lucy directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Mystery was shot last summer at the height of Allen's ugly custody battle with Mia Farrow, who was set to play Carol. Keaton stepped in at the last minute. Given the offscreen drama, Allen could hardly be blamed for coasting with a comedy lark. But coasting is not in his nature. The first shock comes in watching Allen, 57, and Keaton, 47, playing old marrieds with a college-age son. TV and video have locked them in perpetual youth, sexually sparring through Sleeper or Love and Death. It's hard to forget their charming tentativeness, broken in Annie Hall when she blithely announces: "You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew."
Larry and Carol have lost that ability to surprise each other. Their marriage is a truce. She goes to hockey games with him; he attends the opera with her, though he walks out on Wagner ("It gives me the urge to invade Poland"). Mystery reteams Allen and Keaton with writer Marshall Brickman, who collaborated on Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan — films in which the best jokes packed a sting. When someone urges exercise and Larry says, "I prefer atrophy," the crack is a miniportrait of his marriage.
Carol's attempt to get Larry to help her chase a killer is also a cry for attention. "Save some craziness for menopause," says Larry, advising a cure involving "a little Prozac and a polo mallet." Carol hits back where it hurts: "You've gotten stodgy in your old age."
Age is a theme that permeates the film. The couple's sex life is dormant; only jealousy perks it up. Carol is flattered by the attentions of the recently divorced Ted (Alan Alda). Larry, an editor at HarperCollins, flirts with Marsha, a leggy author played with flash and wit by Anjelica Huston. It takes Larry's decision to join Carol on the killer's trail to enliven their marriage. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma adds an aphrodisiac of his own by capturing the lyrical glow of Allen's beloved New York.
The movie's biggest laughs come from watching Larry work out his phobias as he joins Carol in breaking and entering, getting trapped in an elevator with a dead body, making blackmail threats and nearly getting killed in a revival movie house during a shootout that duplicates the hall-of-mirrors climax from The Lady From Shanghai. "I'll never say that life doesn't imitate art again," Larry tells Carol.
Allenphiles will have a field day mining the film for inside dope. Are the clips from Shanghai and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity — movies in which men are set up for a fall by dangerous women — a sly dig at Farrow? Better to see Manhattan Murder Mystery for what it is: Annie Hall replayed in a minor key by a filmmaker who sees the comedy, tragedy and transience of love and can't stop playing the game. Allen's readiness to step on a laugh in favor of feeling may cost him at the box office. But in this time of private hell and public scorn, it will help him endure.