Saturday, March 15, 2014

New York, New York

1977's NEW YORK, NEW YORK is one of those films I'd been avoiding for the longest time. It would come up again and again on my to-see list and I'd always choose something else. Despite the talent behind and in front of the camera,  I just never received encouraging vibes. There were a plethora of negative reviews, sure, but it was something else. The whole project just seemed to cry out "Lumbering, Overproduced Musical." I had little desire to see another, after having watched my fair share, such as Coppola's ONE FROM THE HEART. But this movie was directed by Martin Scorsese in between two of his greatest triumphs, TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. His inspiration ostensibly in full bloom during such a fertile period.

Scorsese's movie wastes little time disabusing that notion. It's quite a contrast, comparing the terminal opening sequence at a V-J Day dance in NEW YORK, NEW YORK to the bravura wedding and reception that opens another (and far superior) Robert DeNiro movie of the time, THE DEER HUNTER. Both films introduce their main characters with vivid, yet naturalistic performances from the actors. The difference is that in Scorsese's movie we learn within minutes that we really don't want to get to know these people very well. DeNiro plays Jimmy Doyle, a persistent saxophone player who pesters Francine Evans (Liza Minelli), a singer sitting alone and wanting nothing to do with him.

Doyle of course does eventually wear down his quarry. But do we root for this courtship? Hardly. He's a real lout: a self-absorbed, arrogant child, and she's just doe eyed and vapid. Oh, I found myself caring for Francine throughout this very long movie, feeling a bit sad as she is swept along, one demeaning episode after another, to certain heartbreak. Viewers often wonder why nice girls fall for jerks (in real life, too). Guys who smooth talk and promise the moon; their brashness masking incredible insecurity. All of this is workable if the characters are intriguing in ways that allow us to suffer their eccentricities, or are at the very least interesting in even the slightest manner.

And...the energy is not there. The director stages some really elaborate numbers, including stage productions and a movie-within-a-movie, but it's all so, lifeless. Scorsese stated he was attempting to pay homage to the great movie musicals, and had the budget and armies of extras to do it, but something is clearly lacking. It's hard to figure - everything that money can buy is onscreen (including elaborate fake outdoor sets, meant to evoke the artificiality of the movies even during this movie's non show biz scenes).  Even the numerous scenes in Harlem clubs, which should have buzzed with excitement, are bland. There are plentiful jazz solos, but the music is also strangely uninspired. Are the stories of Scorsese's drug abuse during the making of this film true? And can we cite that as to why this film is such a disaster?

I did not detect any contempt in the tone of this movie, if Scorsese was going that route. When Robert Altman made THE LONG GOODBYE, his seething attitude toward Philip Marlowe and the whole genre infected every shot. NEW YORK, NEW YORK is very hard to read. As an homage to Hollywood (and Broadway) glitz, it has its heart in the right place but is a failure. As an indictment of show business, it is half-hearted and stale.

Any magic or spark (including between our two leads) is missing. DeNiro is  repeatedly showcased behaving badly, embarrassing himself and everyone in the room (a hotel lobby scene early on is almost as painful to watch as the hospital scene) with his outbursts and narcissism. He dives head first into the performance, but the effort is for naught. I'd rather re-watch his turn as Max Cady in Scorsese's CAPE FEAR remake, and that's saying a lot.  Liza gets to belt out a few tunes, including the film's title song (immortalized by Frank Sinatra a few years later), and is certainly at home amongst the frolic of "Happy Endings" (originally trimmed in the movie's initial release), but is just so dull here. Lady Gaga fans may enjoy the similarities, though.

Everything leads to a bittersweet finale you've seen in one form or another in countless films, but here it is botched. A sure fire emotional powerhouse of a sequence that is indifferently performed, but at least it's consistent with the rest of the film.
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