A flirty Diane Keaton plays Carol Lipton, the wife of Woody Allen’s Larry Lipton. In the background of an amateur murder investigation, it slowly becomes apparent to Larry that his marriage is falling apart. This is foreshadowed in the beginning of Manhattan Murder Mystery, when Carol expresses the concern (in an indirect fashion) that they might be settling into a comfortable but boring routine. This is a theme touched upon in another Allen film, Deconstructing Harry, in which Allen’s protagonist likewise finds his marriage partners to be uninspiring and routine.
The murder mystery begins when the Lipton’s neighbor dies, and the deceased husband seems suspiciously nonplussed by the event. Carol begins a feverish amateur investigation, while Larry is bemused by his wife’s new obsession. Quite reasonably, he wants nothing to do with it.
The intrigue around the neighbor’s death begins to feel like a pretext for Carol to spend time with the couple’s friend Ted (Alan Alda), who is equally enthusiastic to solve the murder. Larry, meanwhile, is hardly interested in investigating the circumstances of their neighbor’s wife’s death. He is content with the official explanation, that it was a heart attack. Anyway, he’s a little too squeamish for breaking into apartments looking for clues. Yet when he does accompany his wife in her “investigating,” Larry’s squeamishness is the source of ongoing comedy. The man wants to go home and take a nap, but is instead drawn into a murder investigation with his bored wife.
Diane Keaton is charming as ever, with her trademark loose and natural acting style. Reel Views describes Keaton as having a “breezy, energetic personality.” And of course Allen and Keaton have a legendary on-screen chemistry.
Carol and Larry are in danger of becoming a boring old couple, Carol fears. Indeed, the height of Larry’s ambitions are to go home and watch a Bob Hope movie. “We’re not becoming a pair of comfortable old shoes, are we, do you think?” she asks him. He quips:
“Never comfortable, I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
At least their sense of humor is in tact as a couple. But will that be enough when more exciting options present themselves?
Although the chemistry in the Liptons’ marriage is failing, the on-screen dynamic between Allen and Keaton is as bright as ever. Meanwhile, Larry, a literary agent, has a budding attraction to one of his clients, the formidable Marcia Fox (Angelica Huston). When Fox becomes more intertwined in the Liptons’ social group, it is Carol’s turn to feel jealous–both of Larry and Ted. Larry notices this, and asks her incredulously if she’s jealous of Ted’s attention to Fox.
Fortunately, Ted and Marcia ultimately find their own chemistry. Meanwhile, the Liptons have renewed their marriage with their dramatic adventure investigating the murder mystery, which has begun to look less and less like a conspiracy theory the more they dig.
“This guy’s more adventurous than I am, and for some reason they just hit it off,” Larry explains to his client/ friend. From Carol’s perspective, as she explains to Larry, “For some reason you’ve gotten so stodgy in your old-age.” Nonetheless, Larry is now making an effort, accompanying Carol in one of her stakeouts.
The jazz music score brings out an element of sophistication against the back drop of Manhattan. As film critic Richard Schickel puts it:
“[Allen] presents an image of New York in his films that keeps its allure alive for newer generations” (36).
Manhattan Murder Mystery is definitely of that genre insofar as it romanticizes New York City. The song in the opening credits, “I Happen to Like New York” sets the tone for the NYC-centric sensibility of the film.
On a personal level, Allen replaced Mia Farrow with Diane Keaton, “his former lover and lifelong pal” (Schickel 52). Farrow had just made the very public and scurrilous accusations against Allen surrounding their daughter Dylan. While Allen almost dismissed Manhattan Murder Mystery as “lacking in weight,” film critic Richard Schickel considers it “his most significant film of the nineties” (52).
Manhattan Murder Mystery. Directed by Woody Allen. Performances by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. TriStar Pictures, 1993.
Schickel, Richard. Woody Allen: A Life in Film. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.
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