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‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 20, 1993

That Woody Allen found time to be remotely funny -- in the midst of his highly publicized legal troubles -- surely merits some kind of professional award. His new film, "Manhattan Murder Mystery," isn't a knee-slapper. A comic mystery in the tradition of the "Thin Man" movies, it has effortlessly funny appeal. Almost intentionally imperfect, it's a tossed-off sketch of a thing, intended to lightly engage and no more.

Marriage has left uptown spouses Allen and Diane Keaton vaguely discontent, romantically lethargic and just a little snippy. At best, their relationship is a non-aggression pact: She agrees to go to ice-hockey games, if he accompanies her to Wagner operas (yes, another Woody-Wagner dig). Meanwhile, Keaton has a not-so-secret crush on family friend Alan Alda (ipso facto, she has problems). And Allen, a book editor by day, gets very sleepy right around conjugal-obligation time.

When an old lady dies in the apartment next door, it's a melodramatic shot in the arm for Keaton. Suspicious at the widower's lack of grief, Keaton becomes obsessed with the murky possibilities -- to Allen's exasperation.

"We could be living next to a murderer," Keaton insists.

"Well, New York is a melting pot," Allen replies.

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" evolves into a full-fledged detective story, with subtly increasing complication. Allen continues to pooh-pooh Keaton's obsessive investigation, so she links forces with Alda. This fuels Allen's paranoia about extramarital hanky panky between them, while Allen's fascination with charismatic writer-client Anjelica Huston gives Keaton cause for similar suspicion.

When Keaton finds further clues to justify her hunches, she gradually pulls Allen into the process. As matters become urgent and even life-threatening, husband and wife find themselves drawn into a renewed partnership.

Of course, the real-life ironies aren't lost on Allen, Keaton or anyone. The ironies aren't as embarrassingly evident as they were in "Husbands and Wives," in which Allen and Mia Farrow all but replayed their offscreen horrors. Nevertheless, in "Murder Mystery," we have Allen's first screen partner subbing for his second (Farrow), who is unlikely to want the job again.

But unlike "Husbands," the latest movie is relatively upbeat about couple life. "Murder Mystery" makes references to dysfunctional-relationship movies ("Double Indemnity," "The Lady From Shanghai," "Vertigo"), but it's essentially a comedy of remarriage, like those screwball pictures in which Cary Grant -- after wacky trials and tribulations -- returned to his wives.

Allen doesn't seem to want to delve into the deeper stuff (or the would-be deeper stuff) that he has for the last wearying decade. And how refreshing it is. For all its Thinness, "Murder Mystery" goes down like a drink of water, as if Allen is washing down bad times and good -- all in the name of a new beginning.

There is, however, little "new" in this film. Allen and Keaton are essentially playing Alvy Singer and Annie Hall gone middle-aged. For Allen, the story exists purely as pretext for his comic reactions, from physical to verbal. On the physical side, there's some amusing business as Keaton -- in bed -- takes a late-night call from Alda, the telephone cord stretched threateningly across bed-mate Allen's face. Verbally, Allen is in control, issuing paragraphs of neurotic mumblings and grumblings, as he reacts to his wife's bizarre new obsession. "For crying out loud," he tells her, "save a little craziness for menopause." No matter what the movie -- and no matter what the personal crisis -- you can always depend on Allen for existential quips like that.

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