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‘New York Stories’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 03, 1989

"Oedipus Wrecks," the Woody Allen segment in the three-part compilation film "New York Stories," is an exploration of every man's horror of horrors. Delivered as a kind of psychoanalytic confession, the film is a surrealistic comedy about emasculation -- a modern fable about a man's struggle to wiggle out of his diapers -- and it's the filmmaker's most substantial, most satisfying work since "Hannah and Her Sisters."

"New York Stories" features episodes from Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, but Allen's contribution is the only one that can be counted as a genuine success. The story focuses on the life problems of Sheldon Mills (Allen), a New York attorney who's a functioning, competent individual, except in his relationship with his mother (Mae Questel). Every week, his therapy sessions are dominated by his complaints about the woman, about her constant kvetching, the picking and fussing, the Ziploc bag full of baby pictures.

In one great scene, Sheldon recounts a mortifying visit from his mother and his Aunt Ceil, who showed up at his office during a busy strategy session with a client. This is perhaps the most brilliantly constructed visual joke in all of Allen's films. With Gene Krupa's solo on "Sing, Sing, Sing" thumping on the soundtrack, Sven Nykvist's camera catches the ladies at the far end of the hallway as they begin their approach, like two theater-going gunslingers from a western showdown, "Cats" buttons on their lapels, their purses and Playbills clutched in their tiny hands.

The degree of comic exaggeration here is perfect. Allen's subjects are grotesques, but there's affection in his caricature; it's not a rancorous freak show like "Stardust Memories" or "Broadway Danny Rose." Sheldon loves his mother -- that's why he agonizes so much -- but as he tells his shrink, he just wishes she would disappear. Here, the movie takes an otherworldly turn, and Sheldon gets his wish. After a few guilty pangs, he begins to feel like a new man. However, the renewal is short-lived and the mother reappears -- though not perhaps in the way we expected.

"Oedipus Wrecks," which also stars Mia Farrow as Sheldon's shiksa fiance'e and Julie Kavner as Treva, the occultist he hires to rid himself of motherly apparitions, is comic in precisely the same manner that Allen's New Yorker short stories are -- it's simple, ironic and blissfully deranged. The reason that this smallish item comes across as more of a meal than a film like "September" is that Allen doesn't seem to be trying to disguise his voice out of some misdirected homage to his betters. "Oedipus Wrecks" is Woody Allen speaking as himself, and not merely because it's funny. Watching "September," you couldn't figure out the connection between these people and their creator. Here, the connections are clear, and the movie seems centered in the artist's heart of hearts.

This is Allen's most Jewish film -- the only one, in fact, where he deals directly with his ambivalence. Allen has always fidgeted under his yarmulke, but there's a sense of acceptance in the scene in which he casts a loving eye on a chicken leg -- with a jewel of fat dangling off it -- that Treva has cooked for him. For Chaplin in "City Lights," it was a rose; for Allen, it's a drumstick. And there's transcendence in both -- transcendence and ambivalence.

All three segments of "New York Stories" are big-city fantasies, and "Life Lessons" is Scorsese's dream projection of the New York art life. Its hero, played by Nick Nolte, is a famed Jackson Pollock-like action painter named Lionel but known to everyone as "The Lion." Lionel is an art star and he lives like one, lumbering around his cavernous downtown loft splattered with paint, the stereo cranked with Cream and Procol Harum.

As the episode opens, though, Lionel is visited by his dealer (Patrick O'Neal), who is worried that the artist won't have the agreed-upon number of canvases ready for his big show. Also, his live-in assistant (Rosanna Arquette), an aspiring painter named Paulette -- just Paulette -- announces that she has been having an affair and is moving out, throwing the painter into a jealous panic.

The sole drama of "Life Lessons" is that of the artist in the throes of the creative process, and when Scorsese focuses on Lionel in front of his enormous canvases, smearing, dabbing, attacking the surface with color, we marvel at the director's ability to make the screen pulse and vibrate. But "Life Lessons," which was written by Richard Price (and based loosely on the memoirs of Dostoevsky's mistress), is all brush strokes and splattered paint. While in places it's exhilarating to watch, it's also complete nonsense. The whole film is sensuously charged, but the point that Lionel uses these sexual tensions to fuel his work, that these dramas are creative rituals, enacted time and time again with different women in the role of the muse, is hopelessly banal.

Despite this, both Nolte and Arquette are immensely watchable. With his dirty blond bangs hanging in his eyes, Nolte uses his gravel-pit baritone to put Lionel across as imposingly physical and potent -- he's palpably male. Virility is The Lion's true medium, and violence -- even sexual violence -- is implicit in his style. In one scene, this attitude becomes inadvertently comic as Paulette watches, open-mouthed with awe, while Lionel savagely, masterfully ravages his newest piece. What's amazing in "Life Lessons" is the realization that true artists can have the same fantasies about themselves as pretenders -- that if Dostoevsky were alive today, he might present himself in the same absurdly romantic terms as a character in a Jackie Collins novel.

"Life Lessons" plays like more of an exercise than anything else -- it's Scorsese flexing his esthetic muscle. It's impossible to know what Francis Coppola's "Life Without Zoe" is. Cowritten with his daughter Sofia, the film is a mystifying embarrassment; it's by far the director's worst work yet. Set at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the episode draws us into the Chanel-stocked fantasy of a little girl who lives alone, free of parental influence, and watching it, we keep waiting for the other two-toned shoe to drop, to be given some clue as to what we're to think about this spectacle of spoiled indulgence. If only it were a dream, we think, trying to make sense of it. It isn't and we can't. My advice -- go for coffee.

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