Bird Watching – Adrienne Shelly’s “Sudden Manhattan”

What an oddly sad experience, watching the quirky little film Sudden Manhattan (1996), from the late actress, writer, and director Adrienne Shelly. In her film, Shelly stars as an aimless 30-year-old woman named Donna, living in Manhattan, who has just lost her job, and thinks she may now be losing her mind. First, there are the rumbling noises, coming from a plate of food, or a cup of tea. No one else hears them. This would be bad enough—but then, walking down the street, Donna is sure she witnesses a murder. A man yells at another man, then shoots him in the back as he tries to run away. Stunned, Donna finds a police officer, who doesn’t believe what she says. No one does. And then the same thing happens all over again, the next day, on the same street, with the same man shooting someone else. Donna knows that the most likely explanation is simply that she is going crazy. But, if she’s not…well then, people are dying, and she should do something about it.

Knowing that Shelly would herself be murdered ten years after making this film, when she came across a robbery in progress in the apartment she used for an office, it’s tough to watch some of the conversations her character has about the things she’s seeing. The film is essentially a dark comedy, and while it does take Donna’s distraught emotions seriously, it also satirizes societal complacency in the face of violence. For instance, Donna’s friend Georgie (Hynden Walch) at one point wonders, even if what Donna is seeing is real, if the police don’t care, why should they? At another point, not knowing what else to do, and taking a flier blowing in the wind as a kind of sign, Donna visits a psychic. The psychic’s message is that no matter what she does, in some way she will be tortured and end up dead, whether sooner or later. Given the real life circumstances, it’s hard not to be taken out of the film in these moments, even if they’re meant to be funny.

If I do my best to focus on the film alone, though, it’s one I would recommend for those who enjoy a bit of indie absurdity. I have heard it compared to Martin Scorsese’s under-seen, bizarre gem After Hours, and I think that is on the mark. Sudden Manhattan lets surreal events occur in settings that embody the everyday. It begins by suggesting the weird vibe is definitely coming from Donna’s imagination, but as the plot progresses, we see that, in truth, she’s being bombarded with weirdness from the outside, and actually is doing a valiant job of staying grounded in spite of it. If we think she’s a bit off, well, once we see her friends and neighbors, we’ll realize that’s nothing.

After the first time Donna thinks she sees a murder on the street, in her haziness she bumps into a man named Adam (Tim Guinee). He sees that she’s upset, and she ends up back at this apartment having a cup of coffee, while he tries to figure out what happened. Of course, her explanations sound insane. Adam doesn’t mind—probably because he’s just as nuts, but better at hiding it at first. Later, he follows her home (“You went to all the trouble of stalking me, I guess it would be rude of me to send you away,” she says), and eventually is revealed to be not only a delusional struggling actor—which is crime enough, in Donna’s eyes—but an actual criminal, who gets bribes from shop owners by posing as a health inspector, and sees nothing wrong with it.

The other man who’s interested in Donna, Murphy (Roger Rees, a classic “hey, it’s that guy” actor), isn’t much better. He’s her creative writing teacher and also owns the building she lives in, where he lets her live rent-free. She may feel guilty about this, but isn’t in a financial place to protest. She starts to reconsider this position, however, when she sees the giant portrait he’s painted of her on a basement wall, and when he starts telling others that they’re getting married.

Soon, plotlines converge, and Donna, Adam, Murphy, Georgie and Georgie’s two new boyfriends (“best friends” who never spend a moment apart, so why shouldn’t they date the same woman simultaneously?) end up at the psychic’s place, ready to track down the man Donna’s seen shooting people and figure out what’s going on, once and for all. This final act of the film is madcap insanity, and questioning whether or not certain events are “really” happening quickly becomes pointless. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t…the important question is whether through all this, Donna’s going to find a sense of purpose, and feel better about herself.

I really liked this film, which is full of good actors delivering clever dialogue in absurd scene after absurd scene. It reminded me not only of After Hours, but of the wonderful Steve Martin vehicle L.A. Story, a film that lets itself be about how life in a certain city feels, until practical reality is no longer relevant. In Sudden Manhattan, whether what happens on screen actually would or could happen is beside the point. Real life feels that crazy; we just sometimes choose not to notice. And what the psychic says is no more or less crazy than what the successful businessman says, or what patrons in a diner say. And we could all be just one bad thing happening away from wondering whether our plate of eggs is talking to us.

Before her death, Adrienne Shelly made two more feature length films, along with several shorts. Her final film as a director was 2007’s Waitress, which I wrote about at the time as one of the best films of the year. In 2009, her Waitress co-star Cheryl Hines directed Serious Moonlight, based on a Shelly script. I’ll be watching that film for next week, for those who’d like to play along at home. Both Serious Moonlight and Sudden Manhattan are currently available on Netflix streaming; beware, though, that Sudden Manhattan has yet to have a decent-looking edition made available on DVD, and the streaming version reflects this.


Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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