By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 20, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Nobody labors quite like Woody Allen to produce a modest entertainment. When he fails (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), the result can seem like a birthday cake made of wet cement; when he succeeds, his enthusiasm is infectious. Manhattan Murder Mystery (PG) is successful lightweight Woody — no more, no less. Set in the same funky-bourgeois New York paradise — doormen, pristine streets, Elaine’s — that provides the backdrop for his wistful romantic comedies, this mischievous satirical thriller makes no great claims for itself, and that’s part of its offhand charm. Its timing, too, couldn’t be better. Shot last fall, just after the Woody/Mia/Soon-Yi mess rocketed into the headlines, Manhattan Murder Mystery is a welcome reminder that the Woody Allen many of us have championed over the years isn’t just America’s most famous pathological neurotic. He’s also a born filmmaker who manipulates his medium with generous, craftsmanly delight.

The movie centers on Larry and Carol Lipton (played by Allen and Diane Keaton), a successful Upper East Side couple — he’s a book editor, she wants to open a restaurant — who have been married for more than 20 years. The Liptons spend most of their time disagreeing on things, but anyone can see they still love each other. Their squabbling (he likes hockey, she likes opera) is mostly of the you-say-tomato variety; it’s the sound of a marriage that works precisely because the two parties have grown so comfortable with each other’s flaws. By now, there’s a mellow irony to the way Allen treats his worrywart mannerisms — the crabbed hunch of the shoulders, the compulsive observational joking that’s really a way of keeping life at arm’s length. Some of the punch lines are still funny, but not in the anarchic, out-of-the-blue way they were 15 years ago. And Allen knows it. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, he uses his familiar joke reflex not so much to crack us up as to establish Larry as a benign curmudgeon terminally set in his ways. When the Liptons wonder where the adventure in their marriage has gone, this is really their way of posing the Eternal Woody Question: Is that all there is?

Evidently not. Returning home one evening, the Liptons meet some neighbors down the hall, Paul and Lillian House (Jerry Adler and Lynn Cohen), a nice but stuffy old couple who invite them over for coffee and a scintillating look at Paul’s stamp collection. The following evening, though, there’s some bad news: Sweet old Lillian House has died of a heart attack. And the strange thing is, Mr. House doesn’t seem very upset about it. Suspecting foul play, Carol Lipton quickly becomes obsessed with investigating the case.

Larry thinks his wife is crazy (”You’re making a mystery where none exists!” he protests), and I confess that for a while his whiny reticence got on my nerves. Watching a mystery, we want to plunge right in. We don’t want a character nattering on about why he shouldn’t be involved. (I wish, too, that Allen would stop using the claustrophobic hand-held camera technique he devised for Husbands and Wives; it’s a style that all but screams, ”Look, I’m still an artist!”)

The movie becomes more engaging, though, when the evidence begins to overwhelm Larry’s cautious skepticism. That the alleged wife murder seems the stuff of penny-dreadful thrillers is part of the film’s whimsical design. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, a geeky-rational urban couple is drawn into a world of lurid melodramatic hokum. The collision produces bright sparks of comic friction. When Larry and Carol pay a visit to Mr. House to retrieve Carol’s glasses (she’d left them behind while sneaking around), the tension explodes into farce. It’s Blue Velvet meets Abbott and Costello.

Allen and Keaton make an endearing team. It’s a pleasure to see them reunited, not just because we’re spared Mia Farrow’s dishrag mopiness — surely the one piece of positive fallout from the Allen-Farrow split — but because Keaton’s smiling radiance has only deepened with the years. The Liptons are like Allen’s gentle screwball fantasy of what Alvy Singer and Annie Hall might have become had they gotten married and outgrown their shrinks. By now, the two actors are so at ease with each other, their frantic verbal rhythms so lovably interlocked, that the film coasts along on their affectionate eagerness.

The plot is clever and absorbing, with one wild Hitchcockian twist (a comic variation on Vertigo). Manhattan Murder Mystery is both a genuine thriller and a cheeky goof on thrillers. It is also, in part, another Woody Allen relationship movie — and I’m afraid that’s the one way in which it falls flat. Allen sets up each of his main characters with a romantic rival: Alan Alda as a divorced smoothy who pines for Carol, and Anjelica Huston as a famous, sexy novelist who comes on to Larry with a desperation no famous, sexy novelist would ever need to display. These two become part of the detective team, and there’s an uproarious sequence in which they manipulate a fake tape recording of Mr. House’s mistress. Still, the will-they-or-won’t-they subplot — the tug-of-war between passion and commitment — is Woody at his most warmed-over. Next time, he should try for a movie that never once threatens to go earnest on us. He’s a lot more compelling when he practices the art of fun. B