New York, I love you. But I'm not sure why...
In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been to New York, New York. I have also never been to Paris, France. Though I realize quite a few readers will have moved on to the next article before even reaching this sentence, I feel it’s important that you understand the perspective in which this review is written. New York, I Love You, like its predecessor Paris, je t’aime, is unique in the sense that its subject is not the character each story follows, but the city in which the short films take place.
The premise is simple: why is New York not just a city, but also the only place so many choose to call home? Why here? Why now? Why Paris? Why New York?
If we were to let these two films answer the questions for us (as they intend to), the choice of Paris is quite clear. Such talented directors as Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, and the Coen brothers make its merits beautifully visible in the 2006 film Paris, je t’aime. The same cannot be said for New York, I Love You. Whether it was the studio’s call or a producer’s decision, the choice to employ famous faces in front of the camera instead of skilled technicians behind them is the compilation’s undoing.
In the first short film directed by Wen Jiang, three fairly well known actors make up the small cast. Ben (played by Hayden Christensen) is a small-time pickpocket who nabbed the wrong wallet. Garry, played with the same smarm we’ve come to expect from Andy Garcia, calls him out ever so slyly while he tries to pick up a cute girl (played by the always charming Rachel Bilson) who happens to be Garry’s mistress.
Yes, it’s unnecessarily complicated and yes, I probably made it sound even more so. Nevertheless, all of the star power and quirky coincidences add up to exactly zero substance. Relationships aren’t made. Lives aren’t changed. And perhaps most curiously, New York is barely shown and never spoken of throughout the film.
The same sentiment can be applied to at least seven of the 11 total tales that make up New York, I Love You. The directors are either in over their heads (as I suspect is the case with Wen Jiang considering they couldn’t even get his name in the right order for the end credits, where it appears as Jiang Wen) or simply don’t deliver their best work. Shekhar Kapur actually has a few Hollywood productions under his belt (Elizabeth and The Four Feathers), but his attempt to translate a script from the late Anthony Minghella doesn’t work. We may never know who was at fault, but even two impressive turns from Shia LeBeouf and Julie Christie can’t save the film from mediocrity.
Allen Hughes, the co-director with brother Albert of Menace II Society and From Hell, does provide a highlight with his meditative take on a mind meld between two late night lovers traveling to meet for a drink. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo are terrific, conveying hesitancy and eagerness simultaneously. The narrative is a little much at times, but the experience actually adds up to something unique to a city of millions. The setting adds boldness to the couple’s actions that would be lacking anywhere else.
Intriguing efforts behind the camera by Natalie Portman and Shunji Iwai are all but enveloped by absolutely awful attempts from Brett Ratner and Fatih Akin. Even the good, while noteworthy, are still less than compelling takes on New York life. Portman’s film features important scenery, but never makes it necessary to the narrative. Iwai’s is told almost entirely inside an apartment. Ratner, not content with ruining franchises, is now determined to drive a mediocre compilation down into depravity with his inexcusable entry about a high school senior trying to score with a crippled woman on prom night.
One of the best stories is inexplicably found on the disc’s sparse bonus features section. Scarlett Johansson makes her directorial debut with a simple short on one man’s pure enjoyment of select aspects of his city. Kevin Bacon certainly helps carry the film past its student level premise, but Johansson does show the patience of a much more experienced filmmaker. With the star power in front of and behind the camera, it’s truly puzzling how and why this short was omitted from the group.
Unfortunately, the rest of the extras are as inconsequential as the film that birthed them. Another short film explains with its existence why it was excluded from the final cut, and five director interviews explain little outside of personal motivations for making the movies. Would it have been too much to ask for an additional documentary on the city, or even a polite nod to its relevance with a production photo book or pop-up facts feature? I guess it may be too much to expect from a film that ignores the city as much as it embraces it. In the end, instead of being left with a sense of awe and admiration for a city I’ve yet to visit, I’m stuck wondering why I was in such a hurry to go there in the first place.