Manhattan – A Love Letter to NYC | Cynthia Ruan

I watched Manhattan by Woody Allen for my English class a while back, and I thought I would write about it this week.

The film centers around a television writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) and his relationships with three women: his ex-wife, Jill ((Meryl Streep), who leaves him for another woman, a high school girl, Tracey (Mariel Hemingway), whom he at first dismisses but later realizes to be the love of his life, and Mary (Diane Keeton), a brainy, sophisticated writer who eventually leaves him for his best friend.


I’m going to be very honest here and admit that I don’t understand half of the brainy stuff they talk about in the film, and that obviously makes it difficult for me to write about it. In my review, I called Isaac a pseudo intellectual who stripped of his smart mouth and glib sophistication is nothing but a pathetic, immature, midlife-crisis-having man with zero capacity for love, but now that I think about it, I’m probably in no position to do that if I had to google every big name he drops in the film.

This is definitely the first time I simultaneously hate the main character but love the film to such extreme. The first time I watched it, I had only one thought in my head which was how badly I wanted to punch Isaac’s face through the screen. So kudos to Allan for such a successful portrayal of character.

This film is widely known as Allen’s love letter to NYC, and it wasn’t hard for me to draw a connection between the story and the city itself. Isaac is a typical New Yorker in Allen’s perception: arrogant, over-intellectualized, a bit messed up, and a little neurotic. He is also symbolic of the dark side of the city. It’s aloof, flippant, despair, and conceited; it’s, as Woody Allen puts it in his opening monologue, “a metaphor for the decay of human culture.” Tracey, on the other hand, embodies the version of New York City that is the greatest city in the world. It’s still not that kind, not that innocent, but it’s romantic. And just as Woody Allen keeps circling back to the word “romance” in his monologue, the ending of the film makes it seem like he is rooting for love after all.


In all the reviews I’ve read, they seem to agree that Tracey is Isaac’s true love. But I just don’t see it. The way he tries to win her back at the end of the film is pathetic, and many critics took that as a sign of his admission to his mistakes. I mean I guess when a 42-year-old man as proud of Isaac is on his knees begging a 17-year-old girl to not leave him, you could say that he is actually in love with her. But what he claims to be love for her seems to me more like a mix of emotional desperation and a heighted sense of nostalgia. He may think that he wants someone sweet and uncomplicated, but deep down, he knows that he needs someone who can challenge him and join him in his cerebral talks. Sooner or later, he is going to leave Tracy again for another Mary. Still, I’m not a hundred percent confident about my interpretation here, so if you’ve seen the film, please let me know what you think.

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