Martin Scorsese's musical saga "New York, New York" is the keenest disappointment of the summer. The derivative nature of such projects as "Exorcist II" ans "Sorcerer" made them slightly suspect from the beginging, but "New York, New York" looked like something relatively original and romantically appealing.
There were people looking forward to an ambitious new musical, a post-World War II show business setting, affectionate recollections of Swing ans Progressive Jazz and MGM musicals at their tangiest, a love story, the co-starring chemistry of Rober De Niro and Liza Minnelli, and Scorsese's first outing since the critical and box-office success of "Taxi Driver."
An overwhelmingly friendly climate of opinion awaited "New York, New York." Scorsese has squandered it by backing off from the very challenge of rationalizing and sustaining a musical romantic drama.
Stylistically, the film represents a step backward for Scorsese instead of the expected change of pace. His new movie has more in common with "Mean Streets," even in terms of pictorial composition and texture, than any musical one think of. This incongruity makes it appear that Scorsese is more compulsive than one imagined. "Taxi Driver" should have afforded him the opportunity to put aside the old obsessive preoccupations, expand his range and step up in class. Unfortunately, he had revived the hostile vibrations form his earlier films in a musical framework too precarious to accommodate a conventional romance, let alone torrential, arbitrary neurotic outbursts.
John Kander and Fred Ebb have contributed a quartet of rinky-dink to bombastic songs to the show, but a couplet from the title song, shrieked by Minnelli to a supposedly adoring throng, seems relevant to Scorsese's problems: "I wanna wake up in the city that doesn't sleep/To find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap."
Ironically, Scorsese blows a golden opportunity to become king of the filmmaking heap by insisting on looking at life from the bottom of the heap. "New York, New York" suggests that you can take the boy out of Little Italy but not Little Italy out of the boy.
Big movies destined to go wrong often betray their misconceptions and miscalculations promptly. "New York, New York" is no exception to this pattern. The movie opens in Manhattan on V-J Day, but the period recreation is curiously unpersuasive and unappealing right from the start. The details are acceptable, but the prevailing mood is alienating and inappropriate to the occasion. It's Scorsese looking askance at V-J Day rather than trying to relieve V-J Day.
Vast sets representing Times Square and a smart nightclub similar to the Rainbow Room have been packed with carousing extras, but one doesn't feel a glimmer of spontaneous high spirits or period evocation. If anything, the festive spirit is overshadowed by intimaitons of impending blow-ups. It's as if Scorsese had never left those neighbourhood bars in "Mean Streets" where the guys were always a nudge away from punching each other out.
I don't doubt for a moment that V-J Day spawned a multitude of punchouts, but Scorsese doesn't establish an historical context for his own apprehensive sense of violence. He's superimposing this feeling onto a particular day in the past. The effect is quite remarkable in a disillusioning way. The mood is as claustrophobic as the one that suffused "Mean Street." In fact, the entire movie has a shut-in, stuffy, murky appearence and mood that conflict with its big-budget and would-be lyrical aspects.
De Niro enters in a loud souvenir sportsshirt and tries to pick up Minnelli, wearing a USO uniform - the first of many unflattering outfits - and sitting by herself at a mezzanine table in the nightclub. The bad vibrations intensify as hero endeavours to come on to heroine. Why, you ask yourself, is Scorsese belaboring a situation as fundamentally uncomplicated as a pick-up on V-J Day? It appears that he's so mesmerised by De Niro's eccentric style that he can't get the scene under control and underway.
After a few minutes of ineffective approaches, De Niro finally gets a line that ought to amuse Meinnelli - "When I saw you, I realized I fought this war for a reason" - but doesn't seem to register. Given the quality of the previous lines. one can scarcely blame her for seeming inattentive, but the fundamental problem with this scene, which haunts the rest of the picture, is that the basic attraction between the characters is never dramatized.
De Niro's Jimmy Doyle, an aspiring jazz musician, seems more boorish than sexy or amusing. Minnelli's Francine Evans, an aspiring band vocalist, seems more slow-witted than desirable. These impressions must have been unintentional and might have been avoided if capable writers had worked on the dialogue, which is closer to improved monologue, with De Niro the soloist, babling or shouting rings around a slightly bewildered Minnelli.
We appear to be contemplating a self-evident mismatch, and the subsequent courtship, marriage, professional association and estrangement of Jimmy and Francine merely underline the crudeness and implausibility of their infatuation. There's no reason to invest any emotional stake in his union. It looks pitifully one-sided at first glance. Moreover, Scorsese can't decide whether brash Jimmy is supposed to be a forgivable crazy artist or an unforgivable tyrant. The audience obviously prefers to accept him as a zany, and De Niro often looks as if he should be doing the life of Harry Ritz, but it's impossible to sustain this idea when the director begins emphasizing his irrationally and nastiness.
Ultimately, there's no dramatic justification for either liking or detesting Jimmy. He has no perceivable motives for wrecking his relationship with Francine - not professional jealousy or possessive love or career conflict. There ought to be a plausible career conflict, based on the premise that Francine's pop style is bound to be more successful than Jimmy acts perverse for no reason, that he's a clinical case.
The movie is such an overbearing showcase for De Niro that one begins to wonder if Minnelli is really acting when Francine is acting perplexed. She must have been unaware of how frumpy she looks. Costume designer Theadora van Runkle seems to be using Minnelli to burlesque the fashions of the '40s. Ditto for hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff. The loud; square-shouldered dresses and capacious, squared-off coiffures simply exaggerate Minnelli's big eyes, nose, mouth and teeth. She's every bit as overdressed and unstreamlined as she was in the lamentable "Matter of Time."
In addition, she's been persuaded to obscure her own singing style by attempting a buttery band vocalist tone in several numbers. The impression is so effective that one ceases to believe that Francine would ever get where she's supposed to go - the Broadway and Hollywood heights. What could Scorsese have been thinking of? Jimmy and Francine should have different styles of artisistic intensity in common. Both should be too much for the mellow Swing band they initially work for. That might have been a starting point, romantically and musically speaking.
Since her big production number, been reduced to a shadow of itself, Minnelli seems to have been robbed of the chance to make a big splash in her own style. Kander and Ebb give her a pair of strident show-stoppers in the closing moments, but the placement seems desperate and the spirit intimidating, like Streisand's finale in "A Star Is Born." The "New York, New York" finale is accentuated by the surely avoidable folly of having Minnelli appear in a costume associated with Judy Garland.
One of Scorsese's most embarrassing deceits is the pretense that Mary Kay Place, who appears briefly as the singer who replaces a pregnant Minnelli, has no talent. As a matter of fact, Place demonstrates far more style at the bandstand than Minnelli, so the joke of showing crowds dwindling away as she performs backfires with a deafening roar, to parapharase another Kander-Ebb lyric. I wouldn't give mush for Minnelli's chances if audiences could choose between hearing more of Liza, Mary Kay Place and Diahnne Abbot, De Niro's voluptous real-life spouse, who appears briefly as a Harlem club singer doing "Honeysuckle Rose."
The jazz interludes, with Georgic Auld, who also plays a band leader, performing the saxaphone solos fingered by De Niro, enjoy more integrity than the other musical numbers. Nevertheless, the underlying tone of the movie is so sour that it's difficult to take pleasure in the music. Did Scorsese really remove or truncate so many musical numbers because of studio pressure? I have a terrible feeling that he preferred to retain all the tedious, slangy dialogue scenes, because they probably reproduce the way Scorsese's crowd smalltalks in private. It has not been a privilege to eavesdrop.