Puppy love has never produced a mangier cinematic dog than “Little Manhattan,” an ever-so-precious account of a ten-year old boy’s passion for a slightly older classmate. Sitting through this weird, grotesquely manipulative bit of whimsy is like sucking on a sugar cube for ninety minutes when each of your teeth is suffering from an exposed nerve.
The kid in question is Gabe (Josh Henderson), whose parents Adam and Leslie (Bradley Whitford and Cynthia Nixon) are going through a divorce but, until the settlement, are both living in the same apartment with their son–leading to some uncomfortable moments when her date arrives to pick her up. Maybe it’s because of this curious family situation that Gabe is suddenly smitten with Rosemary (Charlie Ray), whom he describes as the third prettiest girl in the class and with whom he played in kindergarten. When he finds himself paired with her in karate class–a pastime he takes on to get some time off from Adam’s obsession with training him as a football place kicker–he seizes upon the opportunity to get together with her for practice. He also lurks about the sidewalk outside her apartment building and plots to “accidentally” bump into her in the park. The efforts pay off for awhile, and the kid’s ecstatic; but when the girl pulls back after he comes on a trifle strong (following a very peculiar “date” in which her parents invite him to attend a concert with their family) and then announces that she’ll be leaving shortly for summer camp and transferring to a private school, he undergoes the torment of a jilted beau. (He’s also shattered when their karate teacher switches partners toward the end of the class.) Rest assured that there’s a happy ending of sorts, both for Gabe and for his parents. And that nothing between him and Rosemary goes farther than a peck on the cheek and a very chaste turn around the dancefloor.
Obviously director Mark Levin, who worked on TV’s “The Wonder Years,” and his wife Jennifer Flackett, who penned the script, were aiming at something charming, but they’ve missed the mark by a country mile, coming up with a result that might be called “The Not-So-Wonderful Months.” From the very beginning the picture comes across as stilted and vaguely creepy, not only because the premise itself is more off-putting than endearing but because young Henderson, on whom the script entirely depends, never seems comfortable going through the arch routines the screenplay imposes on him. And it certainly doesn’t help that he’s obliged to narrate the picture virtually from beginning to end. “The Wonder Years” had narration, too, of course, but it was spoken retrospectively by the young lead’s adult’s voice, rather than by the youngster himself. And it was much better written than what’s heard here. In Flackett’s clumsy formulations, Gabe is constantly uttering lines that don’t sound remotely like anything even the most precocious ten-year old might ever say. (The result is about as convincing as “The Terror of Tiny Town,” the infamous western in which little people played cowboys.) And Levin’s attempts to spruce up the material with fantasy sequences (some cinematic homages, like one to “The Graduate,” and periodic intrusions by a Bruce Lee-like hallucination who becomes Gabe’s unofficial advisor) fall flat. On the other hand, the inevitable confrontation with a schoolyard bully demonstrates that Flackett and Levin are no more adept handling the ordinary conventions of the genre, either; nor does the material dealing with the adults–Gabe’s parents in particular–have the slightest ring of truth. Even the supposedly magical Big Apple exteriors look oddly drab in Tim Orr’s thoroughly unexceptional cinematography.
Perhaps viewers inclined to ooh and ah over the reaction shots of dogs so pervasive in movies nowadays will respond positively to this ode to innocent puppy-love. Everyone else is likely to find the movie a mongrel mutt.