Wednesday, May 4, 2011

New York, I Love You

I don't recall if I ever verbalized the title of 2009's anthology NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU during my many visits there, but some things need not be spoken. Plus, saying "I love you" can bring to mind a very broad interpretation, especially when speaking of NYC. In a previous post, you found that I have a love/hate relationship with it. Such a complex, dynamic city could merit no less. The emotions run quite a gamut. It also being a wildly cinematic city, I think now that if I filmed a document of my own, there would be enough past material for a NEW YORK, FUCK YOU with little concern for a short running time. That is a major compliment by the way.

So during and after I sat through this movie I wondered why it went so wrong. The idea was sound: several directors (including Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Allen Hughes, Brett Ratner, and even Natalie Portman) contribute 8 minutes or fewer segments of life in the City. The stories are self-contained and separate, though some characters are seen in more than one. Some episodes are comedic, some serious, some both, all are about "love". If you've been to New York City and pursued love there, you see how this movie would almost write and direct itself. Every corner and subway platform is a stage for the random encounter, a shared cigarette, a cautious glance that turns into a smile. In this film, everything feels so, feh....

If I described the stories, they would probably sound far more interesting than they actually play. But, the scripts can most certainly be faulted for their attempts at short-story cleverness ala Raymond Carver or O. Henry or Paul Auster. An early story with Andy Garcia and Hayden Christensen is a perfect example, as one con man is outsmarted by another; it was silly and amatuerish, with clumsy attempts at slickery and style (David Mamet, it certainly wasn't). Another features Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q., as the former smarmily propositions the latter with some graphic depictions of how he might satisfy her, leading to an unexpected twist at the end, though it didn't have the effect I imagine the filmmaker wanted. Rattner's silly episode is another "gotcha" attempt, as a high-schooler takes the wheelchair-bound daughter of a local angry pharmacist (James Caan, yep) to the prom. The developments range from illocical, to sleazy, to ridiculous. Ultimately, most of these stories are just not that interesting, either.

The film's attempt at something more ambiguous and artful comes with Julie Christie's segment, a singer who contemplates suicide (written by the late Anthony Minghella, to whom the entire film is dedicated). It is sadly muddled and begs for at least half an hour to explore its layers. It was like watching a highlights reel.

Most of NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU is a messy, disjointed ramble. You would expect this with a collection of diverse directors and tones, but apparently this sort of thing worked in the film's predecessor PARIS, JE T'AIME (will be watching that one this week, so I'll let you know). It really does not work this time. Transitioning among tones is difficult anytime, but here we drift from character to character, nary long enough to learn about them or care. This format is not like that of Richard Linklater's SLACKER, where we walk across the quad to pick up with another character, but more dissconnected. By the way, throughout this film there is also a young woman walking around the city videotaping everything, in true indie movie cliche fashion.

It isn't merely the short amount of time we spend with these characters that caused me to feel at arm's length, but that the filmmakers don't use their time wisely. The clear exception would be a late segment with Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an elderly couple hobbling their way to Coney Island, she nagging him all the way, he explaining that a restored hip fracture doesn't make it so easy. Their chemistry is perfect, so much so I got annoyed with them, as I might with real life folks like them.

But there are nice moments. An Asian woman is pursued by an artist. She declines his offer to pose for a painting at first. When she later relents she learns he has passed, and her reaction is somehow heartfelt in its solemness. A songwriter struggles to create soundtrack music and is given Russian literature to guide him, but he finds it inpenetrable until a young woman offers to be his "reader".

The best episode hands down isn't even in the movie: a teen walks around with his father's camcorder, recording other people's lives. From a distance, he happens upon a park bench break-up. On the long train ride home, he watches on his monitor the playback: their faces and body language, which reveal everything. He notices the man had left a book behind. The boy travels back to the bench to retrieve it. A photo of the couple flies out of the pages, hits a fence, then disappears. There is more genuine emotion in that moment than anything that made the final cut. If you get the DVD, you may want to just skip to the deleted scenes and watch it. The other missing segment was directed by Scarlett Johansson, featuring a wistful Kevin Bacon visiting Coney Island. We spend most of the time watching him eat one of Nathan's Famous dogs. Sounds trivial, but his weathered face conveys much.

In short, you might be better off renting Woody Allen's MANHATTAN, or the HBO series "Subway Stories", or just hoppimg a plane and having your own romance with the city. "Romance" in this context may be kissy and gooey, or it may be a firm middle finger, or maybe a resigned gaze. All are present in NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU, but, it's not enough to justify your valuable viewing time.
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