Writer and director Tom O’Brien has flipped the usual indie filmmaker pattern, with a polished debut and bumpy follow-up. His confident 2012 drama Fairhaven followed three disillusioned thirtysomethings who reconnect in their sleepy hometown. O’Brien anchored the trio’s malaise in scenic (and rarely filmed) Fairhaven, Massachusetts, using the damp coastal town to emphasize their limitations and frustrations. But the director is all at sea with the choppy Manhattan Romance, finding nothing new in New York while self-consciously making a blander version of a Woody Allen romantic comedy.
Single Danny (O’Brien), who lives in a gentrified Lower East Side of raw-food restaurants and bookcase-filled apartments, obsessively shoots talking-head interviews for a documentary about Manhattan romance. So why can’t Danny find true love? He likes to be by himself. This explanation would be more convincing if Danny seemed at all comfortable alone. He’s primarily in the company of others, either pursuing hippie-dippy Theresa (Caitlin FitzGerald), a free spirit who keeps Danny on a tight leash, or consulting best friend Carla (Katherine Waterston), who diagnoses his romantic problems but can’t pinpoint why her long-term relationship with Emmy (Gaby Hoffmann) has soured.
Frenetic camerawork doesn’t enliven the dull Danny, who champions ambiguity in art while pursuing cut-and-dried relationships in life. The women of Manhattan Romance are far more interesting, responding to the slippery nature of attachment with apprehension, resignation, and delight. But O’Brien allows Danny to bypass difficult emotional hurdles, so when he reaches the finish line, he’s still none the wiser.
Manhattan Romance is available on Netflix