Widely considered to be Woody Allen's masterpiece, this 1979 homage to the city he loves is filmed in gorgeous black and white and appropriately scored with George Gershwin tunes. The movie is littered with unforgettable images of the Big Apple: a couple on a park bench under the massive Brooklyn Bridge at dawn, the blackened trees of Central Park outlined against the lit up skyscrapers of Manhattan, two dark figures perusing art on the spirals of the Guggenheim.
Of course, this is Woody Allen, so the movie is not all about celebrating New York; it's also about the screwed up people who live there. Allen plays Isaac Davis, a 42-year-old writer who rashly quits his TV writing job and then has to move out of his fabulous apartment because he has no income to speak of. He is seeing Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), 17 in the movie and in real life, a high school student who truly cares for him, though they have little in common and he spends half his time trying to convince her to move on and let him become a fond memory. His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) has become a lesbian and is writing a book about their marriage and divorce; he is driven to hand-wringing horror at the thought that everyone will know the sordid details of their breakup. Meanwhile, his best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wife of 12 years with the brainy but insecure writer Mary (Diane Keaton). When Mary wants more from the relationship than married Yale can give her, they split; she begins seeing Isaac, who dumps Tracy, who cries. Eventually Yale decides he loves Mary after all and leaves his wife, and, too late, Isaac realizes that there may have been something real with Tracy.
This was once my favourite Woody Allen movie, but on rewatching it recently I found that the beauty of the imagery was marred by the ugliness of the characters. Sadly, all of Allen's witticisms cannot make these self-centred men likable: they are immature and can't commit and put the women they're involved with through hell as they try to decide what they want. The women, though similarly self absorbed, are somewhat more sympathetic; Tracy is the nicest of the lot, though we know that at 17 she's sentimental and imagines that what she feels at that moment will last forever. The acting is all good, but Hemingway shines; she brings a clear and open honesty to her role that strikes a poignant chord that all the other neurotic characters lack, and justifiably received an Academy Award nomination for her performance.
If watching this movie on video or DVD, make sure it's letterbox: Gordon Willis' cinematography often utilizes the whole frame, and you'll miss much of the beauty of this film if you can't see it. This isn't my overall favourite Allen movie, but it is the most visually stunning, and for that, at least, it's highly recommended.