Filmsite Movie Review
Manhattan (1979)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

To the tune of Gershwin's "S'Wonderful," Mary and Isaac spent an idyllic afternoon in the country, walking across an old stone bridge with a waterfall. In bed and relaxing together in a country inn after having sex, she was pleasantly feeling better about herself, although Ike wondered if she was overacting: "Yeah, you were dynamite. Except I did get the feeling that, for about two seconds in there, you were faking a little bit - not a lot." She denied it, but then said: "I guess I'm a little nervous around you still." He confidently assured her - giving credence to accusations that he had an overblown sense of self:

It will work out. You should leave everything to me. I'll make everything happen. You don't have to worry.

She looked back and compared Isaac to her two previous male relationships:

Yale was, he was great. He was absolutely great, but he was married. And Jeremiah, look at Jeremiah, my ex-husband. He was just this oversexed brilliant kind of animal...You're much different...You're someone I could imagine having children with.

When they hit the lights again for another bout of sex, Isaac exclaimed: "We'll trade fours." [Note: The musical expression, applied to the sex act, referred to soloists alternating or trading off by each taking four bars or measures of music.]

There was a montage of their growing romantic relationship (to the tune of "Embraceable You"):

  • in Mary's apartment, they danced cheek to cheek to soft music
  • on a Central Park lake (near Bow Bridge), they took a rowboat ride; Isaac reached into the water and pulled out a handful of muddy grime
  • standing in front of a specialty delicatessen, Zabar's (on Broadway at West 80th Street on the Upper West Side), they pointed at the delicacies displayed in the window

Later on Cranberry Street and Columbia Heights (in Brooklyn), Emily asked why Isaac had become so unavailable. He claimed he was "submerged, dedicated" to his new book venture, but she knew it was because he had a "serious" new dating partner that she wanted to meet. They watched as Yale, after dumping Mary and as part of his mid-life crisis, had experienced a "sudden urge" to bargain and buy himself an impractical Porsche - a fitting symbol for his shallow and continual self-gratification. Isaac advised against the purchase or use of any cars in Manhattan: "They should ban all cars from screws up the environment." Yale thought otherwise: "It's a work of art."

During an awkward double-date, the foursome attended a concert together. They were pictured in profile from left to right (Isaac, Mary, Yale and Emily), lined up in one row of seats during the playing of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. As the modulations of the symphony progressed and shifted, Isaac also fidgeted restlessly and uncomfortably in his seat while glancing over to notice Mary's juxtaposition next to Yale.

Walking along a sidewalk across from a construction zone where an older building was being demolished, Isaac and Mary were dismayed that one of the older city landmarks was almost destroyed ("The city's really changing"). Inside a trendy men's clothing store where Isaac was searching for a shirt, they ran into Mary's ex-teacher and ex-husband Jeremiah (Wallace Shawn) - contrary to Mary's description of him as an oversexed dynamo, he was short, chubby and balding, although he claimed he had lost weight. He was in town for only a few days, to attend a symposium on semantics. After a few brief words between them, Jeremiah departed - Isaac was shocked by his first glimpse of the puny man whom Mary had said was so dominating as a husband that she had to leave him:

Well, you certainly fooled me. I was shocked...'cause that's not what - this is not what I had always led me to (believe) - you said that he was a great ladies man...and that he opened you up sexually...and then this little's amazing how subjective all that stuff is.

One night in Isaac's apartment, he was in his bedroom writing long-hand on a pad, while Mary was in the living room typing a novelization of a movie - something he considered "another contemporary American phenomenon that's truly moronic." He criticized her for compromising her values and for wasting her writing talent ("You're much too brilliant for that. You know, you should be doing other fiction"), but she said the work was "easy and it pays well." She was interrupted by a furtive phone call from Yale talking in a phone booth (on Park Avenue at East 68th Street), who invited her to join him for coffee ("I miss you and I thought maybe we could talk"), but Mary declined and hung up. When Ike asked who called, she claimed it was an offer for free dance lessons, and he quipped about being wary of free offers: "They give you one free lesson, and then they hook you for fifty thousand dollars' worth."

Later, in Yale and Emily's apartment, Isaac told Emily that Viking publishers had responded favorably to the first four chapters of his book, with amusement and with compliments. Emily mentioned that Isaac's work might inspire Yale to finish his Eugene O'Neill biography. Isaac recalled that when Mary read his work, "she was just laughing out loud." They were interrupted by Yale's arrival, who was supposed to be home an hour earlier. He explained that he bought the unnecessary Porsche ("a meaningless extravagance") with the funds he might have used to start a magazine. In the next week, the four of them were crammed into Yale's new Porsche convertible, driving across the Queensboro Bridge.

During an outing of the foursome to an antique store in Englewood Cliffs, across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Isaac spotted Jill's tell-all book prominently on display in a bookstore window (to the tune of "Oh, Lady Be Good") -- with the title Marriage, Divorce, and Selfhood, and his ex-wife Jill's full picture on the back cover. At the empty Englewood Cliffs' waterfront pier (the Alpine Boat Basin), the group walked into the frame, as Yale and Emily read various embarrassing excerpts outloud from the book, to Isaac's dismay, humiliation and consternation, while the others were thoroughly amused and entertained:

  • "Making love to this deeper, more masterful female made me realize what an empty experience, what a bizarre charade sex with my husband was." Ike was nauseated, but forced to admit that he once had an unpleasant threesome with Jill and Connie (Ike: "She wanted to. I didn't wanna be a bad sport").
  • "He was given to fits of rage, Jewish, liberal paranoia, male chauvinism, self-righteous misanthropy, and nihilistic moods of despair. He had complaints about life but never any solutions. He longed to be an artist but balked at the necessary sacrifices. In his most private moments, he spoke of his fear of death, which he elevated to tragic heights when, in fact, it was mere narcissim."

[Note: Jill's writings confirmed that Isaac's wrong-doings in life (and during sex - "a bizarre charade" or "empty experience" with him) were the result of his deep narcissistic personality disorder and flawed character - his "idiosyncracies...quirks and mannerisms."]

As the sequence was ending, three of the four walked off-frame, leaving Isaac physically (and existentially) alone on the pier. The scene ended with Isaac's exit and another shot of the empty pier.

Shortly later, Ike entered Jill's apartment and vehemently complained about the "garbage" in the offensive memoirs: "I came here to strangle you...That book makes me out to be like Lee Harvey Oswald!" He said it was unfair to call him narcissistic, self-obsessed, misanthropic, and self-righteous, but Jill counter-claimed that nothing written was untrue ("It's an honest account of our marriage"). She told him that she wrote at least one nice thing about him: "You cry when you see Gone With the Wind." When Isaac overheard that Willie was taking ballet classes, he grimaced (he was forever fearful that Willie might not become heterosexual under the tutelage of the two lesbians). And then Jill also warned him: "I've had some interest in this book for a movie sale."

When he arrived home to his apartment, he paused at his door - well-fortified with three locks and a security bar. He began to tell Mary about his "unbelievable" encounter with Jill regarding her hostile book, when she suddenly delivered a bombshell - with complete and direct openness: "I think I'm still in love with Yale....I started seeing him again....I think I've always been in love with him...he wants to move out of his place so that we can live together." She added that Yale had called her several times in a very "depressed and confused state," still confessing his love for her.

Isaac was shocked, surprised, and stunned ("I'm too stunned to be furious"), without getting angry. And it was predictable that Mary's "unorthodox" and screwed-up therapist Donny had been of no use and was unavailable to help:

Ike: Well, I don't get angry, ok? I mean, I have a tendency to internalize. I can't express anger. That's one of the problems I have. I grow a tumor instead.
Mary: Well. I told you that I was trouble from the beginning, from when we first started dating.
Ike: So what does your analyst say? I mean, did you speak to him?
Mary: Well, Donny's in a coma. He had a very bad acid experience.

Isaac vainly attempted to convince Mary to change her mind: "I think you're making a big mistake here...because you're preferring Yale to me. I know that sounds egotistical, but...This guy's been married for twelve years to Emily. What'd you think's gonna happen? He'll be away from her for a month, he'll go crazy. And if he does commit to you, and you start to feel secure, you'll drop him. I know it. I give the whole thing four weeks, that's it.... I knew you were crazy when we started going out." Unbelievably, Mary said she had no foresight and couldn't even imagine four weeks in advance.

Isaac departed and determinedly and promptly marched down a sidewalk into the university building where Yale was in the midst of teaching a class, to ask about the sudden betrayal. In a significant scene between them set in an across-the-hall, empty anthropology classroom (with "ANTHROPOLOGY CLUB" written on the blackboard), Yale stood before a wooden case of disembodied human skulls (a symbol of dead and disconnected cerebral rationalization), while around Isaac were four hanging displays of grinning, full-scale 5'4" ape-man skeletons. Isaac angrily chided and questioned his friend's "crazy" actions for choosing to be with an emotionally-immature female:

What are you telling me, that you're gonna leave Emily? Is this true? And run away with the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award?

Almost like two children, they argued over who liked Mary first! Isaac was incredulous ("What are you, six years old?! Jesus"). He was livid with "sarcastic" anger over Yale's complete ambivalence, for stealing her away behind his back, and for undermining their friendship:

Isaac: So what, you liked her. Now you don't like her. Then you did like her. You know, uhm, it's still early. You can change your mind one more time before dinner!...How long were you gonna see her without saying anything to me?
Yale: Don't turn this into one of your big moral issues.
Isaac: ...All you had to do was, you know, was call me and talk to me. You know, I'm very understanding. I'd 'a said, 'No,' but you'd 've felt honest.

When the philandering Yale admitted he wasn't a "saint" and obviously wasn't "perfect," Isaac (who believed in striving for moral perfection and ideals rather than lowering himself to cultural norms and relativism) ripped into Yale's dishonesty, human weakness, self-serving hedonistic attitude, indulgence in unfaithfulness, and lack of personal integrity. He was especially miffed that Yale would not apologize for jeopardizing their friendship, and then refused to make any attempt to change his behavior. Yale took the offensive and complained that Isaac was acting too "self-righteous" and god-like. In the end, Isaac made references to death universally taking everyone someday:

Isaac: But you're too easy on yourself, don't you see that?...That's your whole problem. You rationalize everything. You're not honest with yourself. You talk about you wanna write a book, but, in the end, you'd rather buy the Porsche, you know. Or you cheat a little bit on Emily, and you play around the truth a little with me, and - and the next thing you know, you're in front of a Senate committee and you're naming names! You're informing on your friends!
Yale: You are so self-righteous. I mean, we're just people, we're just human beings. You think you're God!
Isaac: I-I gotta model myself after someone!
Yale: You just can't live the way you do, you know. It's all so perfect.
Isaac: What are future generations gonna say about us? My God! (gesticulating at the skeleton next to him, hoping that the figure would remind Yale of his responsibilities beyond selfishness) Someday we're gonna be like him!... He was probably one of the beautiful people. He was probably dancing and playing tennis and everything. And now - this is what happens to us! It's very important to have some kind of personal integrity. I'll be hanging in a classroom one day, and I wanna make sure when I thin out [become a skeleton] that I'm well thought of.

A montage showed later developments:

  • in his apartment, Isaac was typing on his typewriter - where Mary had been sitting only very recently
  • Isaac and son Willie carved faces into two different-sized pumpkins
  • on Heckscher Ballfields in Central Park, Isaac was playing football with a large group of other fathers and children, including Willie (their sweatshirts matched: Divorced Fathers and Sons All Stars)
  • in a Soho tea-room while having lunch together, Emily revealed to Isaac that she knew of Yale's frequent infidelities but chose to ignore them even though they had destroyed her marriage ("I knew Yale had affairs, but then, nothing's perfect. Marriage is, requires some minor compromises, I guess"); Isaac disagreed with her views on moral relativity, calling himself a very principled "non-compromiser": "I can't see that. I think it's always a big mistake to look the other way 'cause you always wind up paying for it in the end anyhow"; at the end of their conversation, the self-deceived Emily took Isaac's advice, didn't "look the other way" and confronted Isaac directly. She inaccurately blamed him for introducing Yale to Mary ("if you hadn't introduced Mary to Yale, this might never have happened") - in actual fact, Yale had introduced Mary to Ike (in the earlier Guggenheim Museum scene); Isaac remained calm, stayed silent, and didn't correct her, knowing that she was much more ignorant about Yale's scandalous behavior than she even realized
  • for the first time, Isaac expressed regret over letting Tracy go: "I think I really missed a good bet when I let Tracy go....And I think of all the women that I've known over the last years, when I actually am honest with myself, I think I had the most relaxed times and the most, you know, the nicest times with her. She was really a terrific kid, but young, right? So that's that...I think I blew that one. I really kept her at a distance and I just would never give her a chance. And she was so sweet...I didn't wanna lead her on or anything...she really cared about me and I..."

In the film's ending, while sprawled across his sofa, Isaac was dictating his idea for a short story into a cassette tape recorder. He was describing one of the main themes of the film - his belief that involvement with unnecessary neuroses kept people from avoiding dealing with more serious universal problems. He then forced himself to recollect all the things that made life for him worth living, to the tune of "He Loves and She Loves":

An idea for a short story about, uhm, people in Manhattan, who, uh, are constantly creating these real, unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves, 'cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe. Uhm, it's, uh, well, it has to be optimistic.

All right, why is life worth living? That's a very good question. Uhm, well, there are certain things I-I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh, like what? Okay. Uhm, for me, uh, ooh, I would say - what, Groucho Marx, to name one thing. Uh, uhm, and Willie Mays, and uhm, uh, the Second Movement of the Jupiter Symphony. And uhm, Louis Armstrong, recording of Potatohead Blues, uhm, Swedish movies, naturally, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, uh, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra. Uhm, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne. Uh, the crabs at Sam Wo's. Uh, Tracy's face...

Isaac's wide-ranging eclectic list of admired things included:

  • Popular culture (sports and entertainment figures: Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra)
  • Classical culture (pieces of music, movies, books of literature, or artwork: Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Cezanne's still life paintings of apples and pears, trumpeter Louis Armstrong's Potatohead Blues, Swedish movies)
  • Personally-experienced things to be consumed (the crabs at Sam Wo's)
  • the most exquisite and unique thing of all (Tracy's face, recalling his earlier conversation about her being "God’s answer to Job")

Impulsively, he sat up, and went over to a cabinet drawer and retrieved the present given to him by Tracy - the harmonica - a reminder of his lost love. After staring at it for a few moments, he decided to call Tracy on the phone, but then hesitated. He picked up the phone a second time and dialed her number, but was unable to reach her because of a busy signal. He grabbed his jacket, raced from his apartment and vainly searched for a vacant cab, to the marching tune of "Strike Up the Band."

[Note: The next scene of a long-run to reach Tracy has been copied by many other films (and was previously seen in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) and Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967)), and also copied in When Harry Met Sally... (1989).]

During a long and desperate sprint downtown - seen with a side tracking shot (beginning on Second Avenue at East 44th Street, and running past Stuyvesant Square Park) to Tracy's apartment, he became winded. He made a second attempt to call from a phone booth, but the number was still busy. He finally arrived at the outer door to Tracy's apartment lobby, where an airport limousine was parked behind him on the curb. [Note: The soundtrack segued to "They're Writing Songs of Love, But Not For Me."] Through the outer door windows, he watched from his remote position as she handed her luggage to the chauffeur. He entered and confronted her next to the apartment's elevators.

When he learned that she was leaving for a scheduled 6-month trip to London for theatrical studies, he abruptly stated: "I don't think you oughta go. I think I made a big mistake. And I would prefer it if you didn't go." When he demanded that she stay, and reaffirmed his love: "Do you still love me or has that worn off or what?", she scoffed and reminded him: "You pop up, you don't call me and then you suddenly appear. I mean, what happened to that woman you met?" Sheepishly, he answered: "I don't see her anymore.... I made a mistake. What do you want me to say? (Pausing) I don't think you oughta go to London." [Note: Unlike Yale who couldn't admit his duplicity and wrong-doing in the Anthropology classroom scene, Isaac apologized and confessed and acknowledged that he had made a mistake in leaving her for Mary.]

She described how all her plans and arrangements couldn't be changed - there was a single reference in the whole film to her absent parents, who were said to be in London finding her an apartment. She also reminded him that a few days earlier, she had turned 18, and then chuckled: "I'm legal, but I'm still a kid." And then she admitted: "You really hurt me." As Isaac struggled to explain: "Uh, it was not on purpose, you know. I mean, I-I, uh, you know, I was, yeah, I mean, you know, it was just the way I was looking at things then," she announced her 6-month commitment to be in London:

Tracy: Well, I'll be back in six months.
Isaac: Six months! Are you kidding? Six months you're gonna go for?
Tracy: We've gone this long. What's six months if we still love each other?
Isaac: Hey, don't be so mature, OK? I mean, six months is a long time. Six months! You know, you're gonna be in, in the thea... working in the theatre there, you'll be with actors and directors. You know, you go to rehearsal and you hang out with those people. You have lunch a lot and, well, you know, attachments form and, you know, I mean, you don't wanna get into that kinda.... You'll change. You know, you'll be, in six months you'll be a completely different person.
Tracy: Well, don't you want me to have that experience? I mean, a while ago you made such a convincing case.
Isaac: Yeah, of course I do, you know, but you know, I mean, I just don't want that thing about you that I like to change.
Tracy: I've gotta make a plane.
Isaac: Come on, you don't. Come on. You don't, you don't have to go.
Tracy: Why couldn't you have brought this up last week? Six months isn't so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.

The resonating film ended with a quizzical look and wistful, sheepish smile on Isaac's face as he stared at Tracy. She appeared to have finally convinced him to have hope and faith, and trust his own emotional instincts about people, rather than always relying on his very verbal, intellectual capabilities. He knew that her wise and deep words were right on target. He became reconciled to her departure - but also maintained some slim hope that she might possibly rekindle their relationship in six months because of their renewed trust in each other. It was equally likely, however, that she would have "attachments form" and come back "corrupted" - a very different person.

[Note: The final look on Isaac's face in the bittersweet ending has often been compared to Charlie Chaplin's face in the conclusion of City Lights (1931).]

The Rhapsody in Blue musical theme was reprised once more, with a smash-cut to a view of the silhouetted Manhattan skyline at sunset (on the Upper West Side with apartment buildings next to Central Park). And, finally, there was a distant nighttime view of buildings flanked by the lighted towers of the George Washington Bridge, before a cut to the start of the end credits (white text on black).

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