American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
I had forgotten what perfect pitch Woody Allen brought to ''Manhattan"-- how its tone and timing slip so gracefully between comedy and romance. I hadn't seen it in years, and remembered mostly the broad outlines, the one-liners, the romance between a middle-aged man and a high school girl. Seeing it again I realize it's more subtle, more complex, and not about love, but loss. There are a lot of songs on the soundtrack, but the one that speaks for the hero says ''they're playing songs of love, but not for me.''
The movie's May-November romance was criticized because Isaac (Woody Allen) and Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) seem to have so little in common. But she at least has what lovers need, an ability to idealize the other person, and that's his fatal lack in the relationship: He doesn't feel she's special enough, and he doesn't see a future for them. Urging her to go to London on a scholarship, he consoles her, ''you'll think of me as a fond memory.'' He spends half of their time together trying to break up, and finally succeeds, taking her to a soda fountain after school--a location with perfect irony, given her age--to tell her he loves another woman, which is not exactly true. ''Now I don't feel so good,'' she says, in one of several lines that Hemingway makes both simple and heartbreaking.
Only later, too much later, does Isaac confess to a friend, ''I think I really missed a good bet when I let Tracy go.'' Well, maybe he did, or maybe he was right and there was no plausible future between a 42-year-old (however immature) and a 17-year-old. The movie isn't about that. It's about the cynicism and superficiality of the modern mating dance, and how all Isaac's glib sophistication can't save him from true feelings, when they come.
His character is surrounded by other adults who inhabit the wreckage of relationships. Isaac's former wife (Meryl Streep) left him to live with a woman, and writes a best seller ridiculing their marriage and love life; we doubt her new relationship is sound if it leaves her so obsessed with the previous one. Yale (Michael Murphy), has been happily married for years, but is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton). Both men have the tactic of trying to escape from relationships by telling the woman it's for her own good. Allen has Mary tell Yale they have no future, right after Isaac has told Tracy the same thing. Yale even more or less gives Mary to Isaac, to get her off his hands (''You'd be great for her''), and they have a little fling before Yale realizes he loves her after all.