Film Review: MANHATTAN ROMANCE (written and directed by Tom O’Brien)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on November 6, 2014

in Film


The new independent film Manhattan Romance, about the romantic relationships of New York City hipsters, centers on Danny (Tom O’Brien), a video editor who is trying to complete his no-budget camcorder documentary about the romantic relationships of New York City hipsters. Written and directed by the multitalented Mr. O’Brien, the movie boasts sympathetic, often charming, performances from the excellent cast; scenes breathe, and the naturalistic dialogue—often enhanced by what feel like improvisations—rings true, in the sense that this is the way these people actually talk. Yet neither they nor this largely uncompelling film, say much that you’ll regret missing.

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Danny wants to make love to Theresa (played with precision by Caitlin FitzGerald), a polyamorous new-age hippie who takes him to new-age dance classes, continually hugs him to improve his energy, and lets him massage her topless back, but who denies him sex. He is best friends with Carla (a delightful Katherine Waterston), a lesbian who lived a heterosexual lifestyle before she came out, and who now lives with Emmy (an underused Gaby Hoffmann). Emmy seduced Carla away from a man, and is now a bit jealous of Danny. And Danny is a bit jealous of Jarrod (Louis Camcelmi), who is Theresa’s spiritual-dance guru.

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The setup of Manhattan Romance, which has Woody-Allenesque elements running through it, starting with the title, seems like fertile ground for a comedy (which is what it’s billed as). Unfortunately, cinematically speaking, this film has no sense of humor. Instead it goes for that uncertain, understated indie mood, which too often seems to me like an excuse for a lack of dramatic ideas. Indeed, a shortage of drama is the biggest obstacle to enjoying this movie; nothing significant happens in the first half, stakes are too low, and the two or three dynamic moments that occur towards the end, though poignant in themselves, are not enough.

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The other obstacle for me is Danny; I hate him. Watching him, his reserved hipster manner, as he mopes around without real purpose or passion, being as careful and respectful in his interactions with women as a eunuch, I wanted something bad to happen to him; especially frustrating are his sincere attempts to assimilate Theresa’s spiritual nonsense as he pursues this disingenuous, hippie-dippy nitwit. These episodes could have made for funny satire, had the film offered a point of view that differed from its protagonist’s, or if its protagonist had any balls. But as is, we are forced to take Theresa as seriously as Danny does, which begs the question: Does the filmmaker really understand his characters or does he take them at face value, oblivious to who they really are? Mr. O’Brien seems too intelligent for the latter. But, as writer/director, he does appear reluctant to judge, to take a stand, to give his film a point of view, which makes for a flaccid offering.

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photos © Beacon Films

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Manhattan Romance
Beacon Films
2014 / 94 minutes / USA
currently on the film festival circuit
for release date and more info, visit or


Jack February 13, 2016 at 4:19 pm

You completely miss the point! All you describe so well in your review is a purposeful manifestation of the ‘impossible’ dynamic of human existence, a dialectic tension that can never be fully resolved. The film is working at the edge of that impossibility: let’s call it the profound need for attachment on the one hand and, as Danny so elaborately demonstrates, the profound sense of one’s own existential ‘aloneness’ – something he is at the more extreme end of craving/needing to give expression to in his life.

Dmitry Zvonkov February 16, 2016 at 6:08 pm

Thank you Jack for your thoughtful comment. If I understand you correctly, I think where you and I disagree is that I do not feel the profundity of Danny’s need for attachment. Nor do I feel the profundity of his “aloneness,” or that he “needs” to give expression to it. Everything goes along fairly casually for Danny. He is not desperate. Danny never “needs”; he would “like to.” He would like to make his film, he would like to have sex with the girl. But if he doesn’t, so what? Maybe he’ll try later with a different movie, with a different girl. Or not. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much what he does at the moment. The stakes are not there. And so while it’s true that much of life is like that, it doesn’t make for compelling cinema. Point being, one can make a movie about all the stuff Mr. O’Brien is talking about but with interesting, compelling characters whose decisions matter and whose actions have real serious consequences.

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