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How Only Murders In The Building pays tribute to Woody Allen

Only Murders In The Building doff its hat towards Woody Allen at a time when the director finds himself cancelled

A still from 'Only Murders In The Building'
A still from 'Only Murders In The Building'

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There is a blackout in New York. Residents of a ritzy Manhattan building, rendered immobile by the lack of elevators, scurry in the shadows for candles and emergency rations. Two neighbours meet in the dark and one (who has long harboured a hallway crush on the other) realises not only that the crush-ee sings on Broadway, but that he has always wanted to be a librarian. “I’m a librarian,” says the crush-er, triumphantly. “Shut up,” gasps the singer, duly awed. “That’s our slogan,” the librarian smiles back.

That’s the line where Only Murders In The Building (Disney+ Hotstar) won me back. The Hulu comedy—about three true-crime podcast addicts solving a murder mystery in real time—had a rollicking and exceptionally well-performed first season, where legends Steve Martin and Martin Short discovered new comic rhythms through an unlikely collaboration with Selena Gomez. The second season is less cleverly plotted and the structural spine—that of each episode mirroring a podcast episode—is missing this time.

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The twists are increasingly melodramatic and far-fetched but hey: Where else will you get to see Martin Short give theatre advice for a school staging of The Wizard Of Oz? (“Just make the fattest kid The Lion,” Short declares, confident that will solve everything. “It’ll kill.”)

The alacrity with which Only Murders In The Building has gone from smart to silly made me think of where the show came from. The premise for the first season was taken so completely from Woody Allen’s 1993 comedy Manhattan Murder Mystery that it felt like Steve Martin—co-creator of the show, and, like Allen, an amateurish professional musician—was doing a cover version of the same jazz solo instead of paying homage. This season, the New York worshipping series wears its Allen-love more visibly: A shot of Coney Island’s “Wonder Wheel” Ferris wheel mirrors a shot from Allen’s recent drama of the same name, while a podcast about Wall Street scammers shares its title with Allen’s second film, Take The Money And Run.

It’s remarkable to see a high-profile series doff its hat towards Allen at a time when the longstanding film-maker finds himself cancelled by the hysterical court of public opinion, but it is far less remarkable that Allen continues to inspire great comedy. Fleabag’s fourth-wall breaking could not have existed without Annie Hall, and Jason Alexander auditioned for the Seinfeld character George Costanza—perhaps the greatest supporting character in sitcom history—by mimicking Woody Allen throughout the early episodes. The master film-maker may not watch much TV (besides live sport) but TV continues to watch plenty of him.

Another gift from Allen may be Selena Gomez. The actor was great in Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York, playing a whimsical film-school student with a swanky flat, and her character in Only Murders In The Building builds on the deadpan imperiousness. She is sensational this season, particularly when we catch her catching herself. In one scene, she is amused by the sign language for “glitter”, yet her reaction—“that’s kinda fun”—is impressively detached, as if a giggle would be overkill. In another scene, she talks to herself and realises the line she used—“Looks like we’re in for a fight”—is podcast-worthy in its cheesy punchiness, and she repeats the line to record it, visibly ashamed of her instinct.

The lovely Three Not-Quite Amigos energy continues to bolster the series even when the shenanigans are a stretch. Short, who has the pointiest lines, slays every single one. “I’m so Greek,” he insists, “I could go bankrupt and no one in the world would help me.” Martin, smooth as ever, plays this season mostly melancholy, yearning for a convict while making TV corpses sit up and applaud. Old Martin-heads will applaud too: At one point, he demands soup with the face he made as “Ruprecht” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Last week it was announced that Martin—and, funnily, Woody Allen—were retiring from their respective professions, before each of them mercifully walked back their comments. As a performer, Martin remains effortless.

The effort is more visible when it comes to Only Murders’ obsession with meta-gags. There are constant allusions to the show being a show (“You can tell this is our second season,” “You guys are really struggling this season, aren’t you?”) and descriptions of clichéd sensationalism (“To our audience there’s nothing more tantalising than an unhinged, murderous beauty,” says a character. “I need something with famous people and blood and ideally a hot girl with a great rack,” says another) that the show itself merrily indulges in.

In keeping with the self-aware ironic detachment, I would call Only Murders In The Building less a love letter to New York and more a love letter to love letters to New York. Last year’s superb cameo had Sting, the Brit who sang about being an Englishman in New York, and this year we have the great Shirley MacLaine, who most unforgettably elevated the Manhattan flat to a cultural touchstone with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.

Therefore, a recommendation: The Woody Allen-est actress of all, and one who was perfect alongside Martin in the Father Of The Bride series, the fabulous Diane Keaton—whose reckless curiosity in Manhattan Murder Mystery led to this series—must feature in Only Murders In The Building. For what is New York without a little la-dee-da?

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about the killing of critics. It is now in theatres.


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