Movie Review: Formless Vignettes Are Hit and Miss in 'New York, I Love You'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

Some places are cruisy, others aren't. Airports are cruisy, but not train stations. Ikea is cruisy, but not Macy's. Paris is cruisy pretty much tout le temps but London only in certain districts at prescribed times of day.

Whatever the formula (and it has something to do with youth, rootlessness and the collective balance between work and leisure), New York is among the cruisiest cities in the world. The sort of city where a man can approach a woman during a cigarette break outside a restaurant and in three minutes flat have her deep in granular sex talk.

Thus, a writer, played by Ethan Hawke, approaches an attractive woman in "New York, I Love You," a compendium of short films, woven together into a light but enjoyable souffle of erotic vignettes. It's not clear, at the end, whether Hawke has struck out or struck gold, and that ambiguity and irony is characteristic of most of the short segments, which seem to take the tone and clever twists of a Guy de Maupassant story as their model.

"New York, I Love You" is the second in a series that producer Emmanuel Benbihy calls "Cities of Love," designed to take "audiences on far-reaching journeys through the world's most beloved and culturally influential cities." First stop, in 2006, was "Paris, Je T'Aime." Next up, the franchise moves to Rio and Shanghai, then Jerusalem and Mumbai.

The New York installment attracted a starry cast of actors and an intriguing cross section of younger or edgier directors (the producers consciously steered away from established New York figures such as Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese). Natalie Portman makes her directing debut in perhaps the weakest of the 11 shorts, but she appears to better effect as an actress in Mira Nair's touching film about a Hasidic woman and a Jain man coming together for an erotic, cross-cultural moment while haggling in New York's diamond district.

Jiang Wen, at this point better known as an actor, directs a taut and cynical take on love and theft, but has little luck eliciting real acting from Hayden Christensen, who plays a pickpocket with a bad habit of picking the wrong pocket. Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci feel underused in a little film about modern-day bohemianism directed by the prominent Japanese director Shunji Iwai.

And so it goes. It's in the nature of these vignette projects to feel a bit formless and uneven, despite a solid effort at interweaving that mixes up characters from different films in chance encounters around the city. This stitching-up of the narratives gives the film a feature-length continuity, but it also blurs the boundaries of the individual directors' work.

No amount of contextualizing can make a comic short about a boy's freaky prom date (starring Anton Yelchin and James Caan) feel of a piece with a sweet, autumnal glimpse of an octogenarian couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) making a pilgrimage to a beach where they must have shared some essential intimacy decades before. But both segments are essential to the film and if they stand apart from the others, no harm done.

Large cities have been a peculiar narrative problem for centuries. How does one capture the too-muchness of a million or 10 million people? Balzac tried to anatomize France in an ongoing, interconnected literary project that ran more than 100 volumes. Schnitzler tried to do the same for Vienna in an elegant necklace of connected tales, "Reigen," which has inspired sex-obsessed directors ever since. "New York, I Love You" is not so formally innovative as either of those precedents, but its formlessness is part of its message, and it's a reasonable choice given the nature of the project.

The real test of the "Cities of Love" series will come over time, as the social nuance of different cities can be compared. Subtly present in "New York, I Love You" is a powerful, nostalgic sense that New York is now passe compared with up-and-coming megalopoli of the world. The writers and directors of this installment seem to inhabit a bygone, almost 19th-century sensibility (especially a touching and enigmatic short written by Anthony Minghella and directed after Minghella's death by Shekhar Kapur).

The characters are all more or less useless, inhabiting the frivolous tippy-top of Maslow's pyramid of needs, with little sense that there's anyone essential at the bottom. It's fun, but decadent. But we won't know if this is just an accident, or real social commentary, until we see more. Bring on Shanghai, Mumbai and Rio.

New York, I Love You (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and sexual content.

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