The Woodman is back and he's in rare form. "Manhattan Murder Mystery" is Woody Allen's first flat-out comedy in years, and he's taken care to pack it very tightly with loads of laughs and even works in some effective suspense.

Allen and his old flame Diane Keaton (they haven't worked together — except for her "Radio Days" cameo — since "Manhattan") play a mismatched husband and wife. You can tell they're mismatched because he loves hockey, which she hates, and she loves opera, which he hates. Nonetheless, they have been happily married for more than 20 years, with a son in college, no less.

Allen is his old nebbish self, playing a Manhattan book editor, and Keaton is his hyperkinetic wife, a gourmet chef looking to open her own restaurant. Recognizing that they're marriage is in a bit of a rut, Keaton is on the lookout for some excitement to liven things up. And she gets it in a big way.

It all begins one night as they have a chance meeting with an older couple, neighbors on the same floor of their apartment building whom they have not met before. Then, the next night, Allen and Keaton come home to find that the wife has died of a sudden heart attack.

Keaton is immediately suspicious and tells Allen she smells murder — but he will have none of it, chalking it all up to her hyperactive imagination. So, Keaton enlists Allen's best friend (Alan Alda) to help her play detective.

Allen, who wrote the screenplay with Marshall Brickman, does an expert job of interweaving this central storyline with several subplots, which all come together for a very satisfying conclusion. (This is Allen's first co-writing venture since the double-whammy of "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," also with Brickman).

Allen is funny, of course, with so many on-target one-liners that it's impossible to keep up with them. But the acting honors here go to Keaton, who has the nominal lead. "Manhattan Murder Mystery" provides her with what is unquestionably the best showcase for her comic talents in years — perhaps since her old Woody Allen days.

Alda is also very good as the unctuous (though never as obnoxious as in Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors") divorced playwright who yearns for Keaton. And Anjelica Huston is sharp in a role quite different from her "Crimes and Misdemeanors" part, this time as an aggressive feminist writer with eyes for Allen.

The jealousies created by these flirtations are funny and ultimately rather sweet. The murder mystery is also clever, with quite a few unexpected twists and turns, resolved in a logical, if somewhat complicated manner.

1 comment on this story

My one complaint about this film is the same one that bothered me about "Husbands and Wives," Allen's new love for the Steadicam, which gives the film a constantly roving, hand-held look, albeit somewhat smoother. The idea is probably to enable the audience to feel as voyeuristic as his characters, as they probe into strangers' lives to solve a murder mystery. But the result is more often simply annoying. (Though never quite on the level of "Husbands and Wives.")

Still, the film is so funny and suspenseful and involving that it's easy to overlook such distractions. It's also strong enough to allow the audience to put aside Allen's personal problems and enjoy the film on its own merits.

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" is rated PG for violence and profanity, with a couple of vulgar jokes.