Whatever Works in ‘Manhattan’: Woody Allen’s May/December Romances

By  · Published on April 23rd, 2014

United Artists/MGM

Friday is Manhattan’s 35th birthday, and while Woody Allen’s black and white love story may not have the prestige of an Annie Hall or the out and out hilariousness of a Love and Death, it does have one unique aspect – one of greatest May/December affairs in cinema. Plus we’re still three years from Annie Hall’s 40th anniversary, and we’ve got to kill time somehow.

But what is it that’s so special about the love between Allen’s balding, bespectacled Isaac Davis and Mariel Hemmingway’s genteel young Tracy?

Well, part of it is that Manhattan isn’t the story of Isaac and Tracy. It’s not really about anyone. It’s a film about a city; something made achingly clear in the title and the first three and a half minutes. We view the scenery of New York, we hear the music equivalent of New York (George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”), and we hear a nerdy, neurotic New Yorker describe himself as having “the coiled sexual prowess of a jungle cat.” Together, those three elements (and Manhattan itself) are Woody Allen’s New York.

Yes, Manhattan has that typical kind of wordy Woody Allen intellectualism, and couched in all those debates of art and thought is the all-important May/December affair. But at no point does Manhattan focus solely on these elements. Allen continually tosses big chunks of NYC into the frame, making sure we know Manhattan isn’t just about a few lovesick schmucks, but about schmucks whose lives are but a tiny part of this great city.

Conversation is not just conversation. It’s something that happens in the context of the big city, and must always be placed alongside movement or scenery or throngs of irate, stinking New Yorkers. When Isaac and Mary (Diane Keaton) first debate the merits of Ingmar Bergman, they’re walking down the block in a long tracking shot, with random civilians obstructing our view on a regular basis. When they meet at the Equal Rights Amendment fundraiser, they’re adrift in an enormous crowd of artistic types. And, of course, are scenes like this one:

A Woody Allen in his element is a Woody Allen that’s forever genuine, and the New York-ian context of his relationships in Mahattan makes them all ring true. He has the Queensboro bridge with Mary, and then the moonlit carriage ride in Central Park with Tracy. Sure, it’s corny, but he can’t help himself. He loves the girl, and he loves New York.

Once the players have all been established, the film immediately goes about subverting the typical idea of a May/December pairing. What we expect is for Tracy to be young and dumb and immature, and for Isaac to be the slightly patronizing voice of reason, as is stereotypical tradition. And of course, this is the opposite of what we get. Tracy is, by far, the most mature character in the film – weakened with just a hint of naivete (she is seventeen, after all), but leaps and bounds above the rest of the peanut gallery.

All others adopt Allen’s usual laissez-faire approach to relationships, swapping partners roughly once every twenty minutes and then whining when the other person’s grass is so much greener and less irritating. At one point, Yale (Michael Murphy) even whines “I liked her first” about Mary, as though this were kindergarten and a great debate on “givesies-backsies” was about to begin. A highly intellectual debate, no doubt.

Manhattan does contain that stereotypical flighty youthful romance, but it’s from the older of Isaac’s two romantic partners: Mary. Isaac and Mary meet and get along like gangbusters. It’s puppy love, and puppy love that also happens to contain the meet-cute, an all-important part of a May/December love affair. When a really old dude meets a really young girl (or vice versa), we need to know just how that happened. What were the situations that drove this young woman into the arms of a man whose ear hair is graying? Isaac and Mary get their meet-cute, but for Isaac and Tracy, there’s nothing. They start out the film as a stable, loving pair. They were meant to be together, really, because even though they look like a mid-life crisis tryst, the film treats them like gentle old souls.

And the ending is a thing of beauty. Isaac realizes his social circle is nothing but petulant children, and the one legitimate child he knows is the person he truly loves. So he runs out into the street in search of Tracy. And in a moment of pure, romantic bliss, he finds her. The bliss doesn’t last long, though, as she’s leaving that very instant for school in London. But it’s only for six months, and six months isn’t that long a wait, which is what she tells Isaac. “You have to have a little faith in people.”

Cut to Isaac, making a sad (or is it hopeful?) little half-smile. Cut to the New York skyline. Cut to black.

Manhattan’s greatness becomes so much more apparent when you see Allen revisit the May/December romance in Whatever Works.

Whatever Works does not open on some grand view of the city. It cuts all that out and starts on Manhattan’s Scene Two – four New York intellectuals making intellectual New York conversation. There’s none of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan’s crowds; Whatever Works’ version of the city feels neutered in comparison. It barely even feels like New York.

And then our grouchy hero, Boris Yelnikoff (Larry David, putting his own neurotic Jewish spin on Woody Allen’s Jewish neuroses) breaks the whole movie. Advancing on the camera like a violent predator, he headbutts through the fourth wall and delivers a three-minute monologue about the terrible oppressive evils of the modern world. Money and failure and toxic pop culture, those same old demons. It’s awkward and it goes on for about two and a half minutes too long, but this long and wordy talking-to is also something much, much worse. It’s an imbalance of power.

Manhattan set about placing its lead characters on equal footing. A few were more moral than others, but no one was perfect and no one was truly evil. Here, we’ve got a know-it-all who actually knows it all. How can this guy possibly navigate a relationship – a thing which, almost by definition, involves two flawed people loving each other despite their many flaws?

He can’t. Because he finds Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood) sleeping in the back alley behind his apartment, and immediately sets about loving her in all the ways Manhattan taught us were easy cliches.

Remember how, despite being twenty-five years his junior, Tracy was actually wiser than Isaac in a lot of ways?

Not so with Whatever Works. Isaac is a miserly genius, and Melodie could be outsmarted by a raccoon. She is everything we expect from the young girl in a Lolita-based romance, dumb and impressionable and existing only for someone else’s sex fantasies (Boris and his old man cohorts leer and rate her on a scale from one to ten, while Melodie slowly opens up Boris to the wild word of youthful sex). She doesn’t have a personality, either, so Boris just fills her up with his crotchety old man pessimism, which she regurgitates for most of the running time.

Remember how Tracy and Isaac had no meet-cute?

Whatever Works’ first half is a solid block of meet-cute, as Boris takes in his bride-to-be and berates her constant stupidity, every hour of every day, until they fall in love. And when they do, it’s a joke. When Melodie’s mother finds out about the two and promptly faints, it’s never more apparent that the relationship (also the film) is not something to be taken seriously. In the end, Melodie finally leaves her grumpy old man for the significantly less grumpy and less old Henry Cavill, but at that point the film’s soured so badly that it’s hardly worth caring about. Perhaps they weren’t meant to be together, but why were they ever together at all?

Whatever Works is everything trite and tired about the May/December thing, all rolled up into a neat package. But seeing Larry David stumble through a bitter character and a bitter romance in a movie that tastes like eating a fistful of lemon peels has its uses – it makes Manhattan all the sweeter. As a counterpoint to Allen’s earlier film (and an easy stand-in for all the old person/young person trash romance out there), it highlights everything one shouldn’t do when lighting the fires of love between two distinctly different age groups.

Thankfully, we have Manhattan to say and do all the right things. So curl up by the fire and pop in one of Woody Allen’s best, and pray to whatever deity you can that Woody Allen cranks out another Manhattan sometime soon. In another 30 years, it’ll be old enough to have an adorable young woman fall in love with it.