First, there was Paris, je t’aime (2006), an anthology of short films focused on love and Paris. Then the producers announced intentions to do it again, in other cities. So now we have New York, I Love You, and the project that began so promisingly has already sputtered. New York viewers may emerge irritated; most others will probably wind up bored.
Where the films in Paris used neighborhoods as inspiring and allusive settings, the new film’s makers are collectively more self-conscious about the New Yorkiness of their task. Even as stilted, vague observations on life in the city abound, each film seems less specifically knowledgeable about the place, rarely venturing outside of Manhattan (or even above 125th Street). Many of the filmmakers trade on assumptions that are outdated, limited or just plain incorrect: New Yorkers take cabs everywhere, go to Central Park, and smoke constantly (two characters even light up in a bar, which hasn’t been legal in years).
As a result, most of these shorts have no more local flavor than the generic transition shots of bridges and traffic. Natalie Portman, one of the only holdovers from Paris, has her hands in two segments and shows better understanding of this project’s possibilities. She costars in Mira Nair’s bittersweet short, the best of the bunch, playing a Hasidic Jew negotiating diamond prices, and flirting across cultures, with an Indian jeweler (Irrfan Khan). She also wrote and directed her own segment about a single father sharing custody of his young daughter—not a revelation, but simple and affecting.
Portman and Nair are both in tune with the city’s prickly makeup, where different cultures coexist and overlap, yes, but don’t always melt together easily. Elsewhere, the ethnically diverse filmmakers concern themselves mainly with how young, straight, white people can be paired off: Christina Ricci and Orlando Bloom; Rachel Bilson and Hayden Christensen (the Jumper reunion no one requested); Olivia Thirlby and Anton Yelchin.
Worse, none of those three parings—or many of the others—are about love or relationships so much as initial attraction and lust; the whole movie seems informed by first, superficial looks, whether at a girl across the bar or New York itself. Brett Ratner’s contribution, with Yelchin as a broken-hearted teenager taking the wheelchair-bound Thirlby to his prom, is particularly shallow in the way it plot-twists itself into creepiness—a major feat, considering the charm of his stars.
The film lacks diversity in appearance, too. Several segments share filmmaking mistakes (awkward narration, weird out-of-place insert shots), and many are shot with the same hazy, dark-hued dreaminess. This might look evocative at first, but turns out to be more reflective of a generic New York “style” than the city per se. Those shorts that avoid this house style, like a puzzling and extremely tedious hotel-set bit conceived by the late Anthony Minghella and taken up by Shekhar Kapur, still fail to capture a sense of location, and indeed could be set in just about any city.
New York also works too hard to connect its uninvolving characters, as several turn up briefly in more than one film, passing on a sidewalk, say, or in brief postscripts. Rather than suggesting a sense of a varied yet also unified New York—admittedly, a city with a steady beat of strange coincidences—these associations actually make the film seem smaller, less vital, more like a chintzy ensemble movie in the vein of Playing by Heart or He’s Just Not That Into You.
It might seem churlish to complain that New York, I Love You lacks input from some of the most obvious New York filmmakers: no Spike Lee, no Woody Allen, no Martin Scorsese. But the experience of watching the film, hoping in vain for even a handful of segments as entertaining as most of Paris, je t’aime, encourages sad speculation over how wonderful it could’ve been. If you’ve ever loved New York, New York, I Love You will break your heart, and not in a good way.