J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Manhattan Night: Nocturne for Tabloids

Porter Wren is a New York City tabloid columnist constantly bemoaning the passing of his once great profession. It is a rather self-serving pursuit, but somebody has to do it—and it apparently won’t be readers. Like his colleagues, he is not inclined to take any responsibility for the decline of old media, but he will eventually have to own up to all the personal mistakes he is about to make in Brian DeCubellis’s Manhattan Night (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Adapting Colin Harrison’s New York Times Notable novel, Manhattan Nocturne, DeCubellis started the dumbing-down process with the title and presumably kept it going all the way through. Initially we meet Wren working the late night crime beat. He tells us people open up to him because he is such a good listener and he shows it to us by cocking his head like a golden retriever whenever witnesses talk to him. He made his name and column byline by finding a missing child the cops had given up on, but he is now in a bit of a rut, albeit a sensitive muckraking one.

Enter Caroline Crowley to liven things up. She is the widow of Simon Crowley, an acclaimed filmmaker who died under mysterious circumstances. The married-with-children Wren senses this might be the kind of sensational story that will keep the paper’s new Rupert Murdochian owner Sebastian Hobbs at bay, but he does not start investigating until Crowley sweetens the deal by seducing him. However, he quickly discovers this case is more about blackmail than murder. Evidently, Simon Crowley compulsively shot videotape all around the City, like an annoying Tarantino character. One of his tapes included something Hobbs very much wants to keep out of the public eye and he has been regularly paying someone to keep it so.

That is all perfectly reasonable as noir set-ups go, but the third act is just a logical train wreck. We can try to avoid pedantry, but there are just too if-that-was-X-than-who-did-Y questions to glaze over. Seriously, it makes the conclusion of The Big Sleep look neat and tidy, while completely lacking the wit of Bogart and Bacall.

Somehow as Wren, Adrien Brody manages to look simultaneously morose and smug. At least Yvonne Strahovski brings all kind of femme fatale heat as Crowley, despite the film’s constantly vacillating attitude towards her. On the other hand, there is no getting around the icky awkwardness of her flashbacks scenes with Campbell Scott hamming it up as the games-playing Simon Crowley. Steven Berkoff (who played Soviet villains in Octopussy and Rambo: First Blood Part II) also gets to play it coolly ruthless and openly revealing as Hobbs. Unfortunately, Jennifer Beals is completely under-employed as Wren’s not so forgiving wife Lisa, but she looks smart enough to be a doctor, which is something. What she is doing with him is anyone’s guess.

Real noir fans could still forgive the plot holes if there were more humor and attitude to spruce up the film. Yet, DeCubellis’s screenplay takes itself too seriously, in all the worst ways. It is safe to say the laughs all come at the wrong spots. Not recommended, Manhattan Night opens this Friday (5/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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