It is almost inevitable that any modern soul-searching romantic comedy set in pedestrian Manhattan featuring nostalgic jazz will be compared to those of Woody Allen. Adrienne Shelly’s “Sudden Manhattan” does have some similarities to Allen’s romantic comedies, but not enough to be grating or blatantly derivative (like When Harry Met Sally which went so far as to have the same lettering as Allen’s in the titles). “Sudden Manhattan” is rarely too cutesy or irritating, though it contains some of the usual New York intellectual touches – journal writing, people watching, reading together in bed, sanity doubting, etc.. It is the story (and I use that term loosely) of Donna, a lost, faithless, helpless New York woman who is searching for a scrap of meaning or worth in her jumble of a life. As Donna Adrienne Shelly seems like a curious mixture of a young Mia Farrow and a particularly hopeless Woody Allen (I know, I am comparing it to Woody’s again, I’m sorry). She is surrounded by strangers, a few friends, and two men who desire her, but toward whom she feels little but confusion and contempt.
The cast of characters is expectedly quirky. Adam is her ever-present, charming, beguiling, inept, stalker/would-be boyfriend. Well-played by Tim Guinee, Adam is a sort of jaded woman’s version of an every-boyfriend – a liar, a man of unpredictable faces, a man who ultimately doesn’t love his woman right or completely, neither physically nor emotionally. He doesn’t know himself or his body well, and likes to read the great works after attempting to have intercourse. Donna’s other suitor, Murphy (Roger Rees), is her intense, snobbish, purposefully tragic teacher and landlord. Hynden Walch plays Georgie, Donna’s dramatic young hipster friend, with gusto. Louise Lasser turns up (yes, I know, another possible Woody Allen reference, for those of you keeping score at home) as Dominga, an exasperated “Gypsy” fortune teller. Paul Cassell and John Sklaroff as Ian and Alex, sort of a scenester Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, are introduced in a successful and well-choreographed rapid-fire comic scene later in the picture.
Donna witnesses several almost identical murders and spends much of the film trying to figure out if they are real or not, and trying to understand the people around her and what they mean. It is a surreal venture, and anyone who isn’t in for the long haul with the surrealism and the symbolism might be yawning or getting frustrated by the third act. “Sudden Manhattan” has a dreamlike quality; that is to say it seems to follow the elusive, symbolic, alternately absurd and creepy logic of the human dream world. It is full of happenstance, costumes, repetition, etc. Images of the fortune-teller (as in Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose) and the magician (as in Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, Shadows and Fog, Oedipus Wrecks, and others) add to the atmosphere of the grotesque and the burlesque. (Okay, I’m done with the Allen references).
In general, movies about neurotic people who obsess over themselves; ruminating on their sanity, their life, their relationships, how things effect them, their future, etc. can get awfully dull awfully fast if they don’t employ a good amount of charm, inventiveness, and creativity. This self-centered personal journey falls into that rut a few times, but usually avoids it. In the end it promises the possibility of a new connection and a new communication; a return to sanity. Sitting in bed together in a quiet moment after having made love Donna asks Adam “Just say something, and I’ll respond. I promise I’ll respond”.
“Sudden Manhattan” is an interesting if sometimes puzzling reflection on life and a few of its questions and complications. It shouts as much as it whispers, but never enough to cause a headache. If you are in the mood for a moody New York vision, give it a chance.