FILM / The comfort of strangers: Adam Mars-Jones on Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen's return to a familiar form and, in Diane Keaton, a familiar leading lady

It's light, it's droll and it's pretty much guaranteed not to feature on any newspaper pages except the ones devoted to the arts. From Woody Allen's point of view, Manhattan Murder Mystery must count as a total success, and audiences needn't feel short- changed either. The presence of a book called Romantic Comedy by the hero's bed is an ominous early signal, but what follows isn't excessively weighed down by knowingness or by movie references.

There are some formulaic scenes (woman searches man's room, for instance, hiding under the bed when he returns prematurely), with only an idiosyncratic choice of music - drum-based jazz - to lend a distinctive flavour, but there are also plot-driven sequences that have been thoroughly customised, and Allen continues to explore familiar scenes in the central relationship between Larry (Allen himself) and Carol (Diane Keaton). This is still the Manhattan of happy angst, of cosy discomfort and intimate irritation.

Larry and Carol have a rapport based on friction. Their bantering can turn to bickering without their really noticing the moment that they start getting on each other's nerves, or even the point at which other people would be calling their lawyers and discussing the distribution of assets.

In some ways Diane Keaton is an outstandingly fussy actress, with her repertoire of hesitations and nervous gestures, but she can also convey a natural sensibility under all the tics. Her Carol, a kook who's not so kookie after all, whose wild deductions turn out to be accurate, is almost a reprise of Annie Hall. Even her wardrobe, with its combination of the formal and informal, is reminiscent of Hall's - though these days it is more likely to emphasise the enduring excellence of her legs.

Allen's Larry, meanwhile, is a safely unflattering self-portrait. There are no young women around, and the only child in evidence is the couple's grown-up son. When Larry is tempted to stray, it is with a writer whose novels he edits (played by Anjelica Huston), and he is half-hearted about it. He is only trying to console himself in advance for the possible loss of Carol; it's an anticipated rebound.

There's more slapstick than there's been for a good while in a Woody Allen film, and a purer incarnation of a schlemiel in the hero. Early in the film, we hear the absurd clatter in the dark of the lifelong wearer of glasses fumbling for them in order to answer the phone, unable to contemplate consciousness without corrective eye wear. Larry is neurotic and unadventurous, immediately giving the game away with a sort of hyperactive clumsiness whenever he is called upon to lie or act a part. The man is a walking polygraph. Perhaps there's a slight extracurricular emphasis to his line, 'I don't break the law, I live within the Constitution.'

It's a familiar pattern in Woody Allen movies for the Allen character to be first torn down and then built up, made first comic and then romantic - most jarringly in Hannah and Her Sisters, where it skewed the structure of the whole film. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, this development is integral to the narrative: if Carol starts informally investigating a neighbour's death partly as a way of growing away from her husband, and of sharing something with an old friend (Alan Alda's Ted) who also seems to be making himself romantically available, then Larry must show his competence in this precarious public realm to prove himself worthy of her after all.

Never mind that from the audience's point of view, it's not actually in doubt that Carol and Larry belong together. Not only have they exchanged vows, they've exchanged exclamations, so that in moments of crisis he says 'Jesus]' and she says 'Oy veh]' The mild twist that Manhattan Murder Mystery adds to its generic forebears - the various Thin Man films, where sleuthing was the extension of a glamorous romance - is that here the investigation is a sort of DIY marital therapy.

The script, written with Allen's early collaborator Marshall Brickman, has a feel of something taken out of mothballs and brushed up with a few up-to-date references (a mention of the fashionable anti-depressant Prozac is the closest thing to topicality).

The understandable move away from the public domain, where Allen has had to spend so much time lately, has one unwelcome side-effect. When an artist is dealing with his own life, in however veiled a way, the issue of narrowness needn't arise, but when he shifts focus and starts dealing with people who are vaguely similar to himself (but without his particular history), then his can seem a very inconsequential vision. The mildly creative people, secure in their unease, who populate Allen's films, can seem uninteresting when there is no prospect of a jolt of confession or self-discovery. Even the incidental people who walk the pavements in Manhattan Murder Mystery look curiously homogenous and interchangeable. Autobiographical material was only one of the things that made Annie Hall such a breakthrough film for Woody Allen. There was also his discovery of his own playful way of using the camera. But that is something he has only intermittently consolidated. He is often tempted by pastiche, in a way that suggests an insecure sense of his identity as director.

For his last film, Husbands and Wives, he chose to use a jarring pseudo-documentary style, the film language of a pretentious film school graduate. Manhattan Murder Mystery has only one similar moment, where the camera zooms towards characters' faces with an amateurish lurch, but there is still a feeling of disingenuous roughness. Conspicuously hand-held camera-work can seem like a tiresome affectation in the era of the Steadicam.

The relatively anonymous style of the film is suddenly overtaken at its climax by a curiously inappropriate hommage to Orson Welles. Having contrived a showdown behind the screen of a run-down cinema in a space already full of mirrors, Allen makes it coincide with the film being shown: the final shoot-out in a hall of mirrors from The Lady from Shanghai. When it comes to an obligatory action climax, Allen can only borrow, without making the borrowings his own. However, Larry's verdict after the event - 'I'll never say that life doesn't imitate art again' - may be the simplest explanation for the new film's flight from the personal.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot