New York, I Love You

| October 15, 2009

Two years ago, Paris, Je T’aime brought film lovers the feature-length equivalent of an international film festival. The concept was ingenious: eighteen celebrated filmmakers each make a short subject set in the City of Love, thus allowing audiences to view the same town from different cultural perspectives. Some shorts worked better than others, but the resounding majority of them were utterly captivating. The directorial lineup was formidable: Walter Salles, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron, Joel & Ethan Coen, Isabel Coixet, Tom Tykwer, Sylvain Chomet…to name a few. But the best was saved for last: a deeply moving and poignantly comic vignette from Alexander Payne about the life-affirming epiphany one can only experience while visiting a foreign country.
I love to see this cinematic experiment continue with New York, I Love You, even despite the fact that it isn’t anywhere near as artistically stimulating or dramatically satisfying as Paris, Je T’aime. There’s only ten filmmakers instead of eighteen (excluding Randall Balsmeyer, who handles the transitions). The lineup is still impressive, but not exactly in Paris’s league (there was derisive laughter at the press screening when Rush Hour director Brett Ratner’s name flashed across the screen). While the overall film earns points for avoiding stereotypical NYC locations (there are no visits to the Empire State Building), or obvious directorial choices like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen (who already contributed to the underwhelming New York Stories), it often fails to make much of an impression. Most of the stories simply aren’t memorable, and many of the relationships are so one-note or inexplicable that they might as well be scrapped subplots from Love Actually. That being said, there’s still plenty to admire here.
Four of the filmmakers are actors-turned-directors, including Yvan Attal (My Wife Is An Actress), who performs double-duty with two equally absorbing tales that draw their power from the actors’ performances rather than flashy camera angles. His first segment, featuring Ethan Hawke’s desperate flirtations with an uninterested Maggie Q, plays like a darkly funny satire on Before Sunrise. Natalie Portman’s directorial effort makes up for its dramatic obviousness with lyrical visuals that capture the heightened inner mind of a child. It’s the kind of short subject that would easily win awards at student film festivals, and it certainly builds optimism for her potential as a filmmaker. It’s certainly more effective than the instantly forgettable segments from acclaimed actor/filmmakers Wen Jiang (Devils on the Doorstep) and Faith Akin (The Edge of Heaven). Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut unfortunately failed to make the final cut.
Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) once again delves into her trademark subject of Indian identity in a tender scene between Portman and Irrfan Khan. Their chemistry is electric, and Nair’s story takes some surprising (if not always convincing) turns. Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) has great fun directing two screen legends (Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach) in the tale of a bickering couple on their 63rd anniversary. Leachman and Wallach are a delight to watch, but their story (like the overall film) goes nowhere. Some segments are so uninteresting that it’s easy to forget the cinematic heavyweight behind the lens. Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou) delivers an especially dull love story about an overworked guy (Orlando Bloom) who’s stalked by the heart-faced Christina Ricci, who comes off more creepy than whimsical. Allen Hughes (Menace II Society) assembles a series of erotic flashbacks in a sequence that’s derivative of countless other pictures. One of his characters actually says, “I felt like I was in a Bertolucci movie.” You wish.
Undoubtedly the most fascinating film of the bunch comes from Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), partly because it was written by the late Anthony Minghella (who receives a dedication credit at the end). Kapur’s brightly pale imagery surrounds his characters with a ghostly aura, while Julie Christie and John Hurt once again prove that they have great faces. But the big surprise of the film is Shia LaBeouf (entirely devoid of his Transformers snark) in a performance that will once again solidify his status as one of the finest young talents in Hollywood. Kapur’s film gives so much for the audience to chew on, and is so deeply mysterious that it clearly deserves to belong in a compilation of more substance and ambition. Its placement in New York, I Love You is particularly jarring, since it comes just one segment after Brett Ratner’s broad teen comedy about (what else?) losing virginity. Yes, Ratner’s presence among such esteemed filmmakers is rather laughable, but his segment works primarily because its cast (Anton Yelchin, James Caan, and the eternal sexual initiator Olivia Thirlby) is so darned appealing.
Thus, the film is thoroughly uneven, and not always in a charming way. It’s still worth a look, especially for film scholars and hopeless romantics. But for average moviegoers looking to get their money’s worth, New York, I Love You is worth a rental, not a theater ticket. My hope is that once concept author Emmanuel Benbihy gets around to making Shanghai, I Love You, Jerusalem, I Love You, and Rio, Eu Te Amo (which are all listed on his IMDb page), his producers will push for the same exhilarating craft, originality and striking artistic vision that made me tomber en amour with Paris, Je T’aime.

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