The Stench of Truth
The camera cranes out and over Central Park, swooping down through golden leaves dappled with pale autumn light. On the soundtrack, Diana Krall sings a soft-pop-jazzy “Let’s Fall in Love.” The camera picks up beautiful people strolling on sidewalks, children running in innocent delight. Everything is bathed in that damned autumn light. It’s all so charming, so perfect, so completely contrived and risible. And this is only the beginning.
Maybe I went into the screening of Autumn in New York with a bad attitude. I had read, just days before, that the film would not be previewed for critics because critics had laughed and snarked throughout one New York City screening. But then director Joan Chen complained that MGM’s decision was unfair, that her stars (Richard Gere and Winona Ryder) gave wonderful performances, that the movie deserved to be seen without the prejudice that would inevitably fall out from not pre-screening. In fact, MGM’s instincts however self-serving were right, but that doesn’t explain how the film turned out so badly.
What makes this ironic is that the characters in Autumn in New York remark on its bad-idea-ness frequently: Everyone in the film can see that pairing a 48-year-old womanizer with a 22-year-old girl dying from a sketchy illness “of the heart” is lame, not to mention derivative, unpleasant, and pathetic. But there it is, on the big screen in all its golden-light-suffused splendor. Because the script provides little material for their “development,” the characters tend to fill the time by talking about what they’re doing rather than doing it. Consider the following insights from the Male Lead’s Best Friend: “There ain’t a right angle in it!” The Female Lead’s Grandmother: “She’s really sick.” The Male Lead: “This isn’t right.” Or the Female Lead Herself, on hearing Male Lead assert that their relationship is a bad idea: “The stench of truth.” What do they know that the filmmakers do not?
These characters are introduced in the simplest, corniest ways, as if effectively jerking tears was a matter of filling in the formulaic blanks. We meet womanizer-restaurateur Will (Gere) in the aforementioned first autumnal scene, strolling in the park with his lissome girlfriend of the moment, Lynn (Jill Hennessey). When she catches him flirting with a beauteous pregnant girl, his character is pretty much set, but in a slightly tricky way: He’s an unfaithful and self-involved cad, of course, primed to learn a life-changing lesson about the value of family and commitment. As if none of us anticipate what’s to come when he tells Lynn, “I don’t like surprises, actually.” Next!
If only it were over at that point. But the movie goes on, for many, many more minutes of viscous cliches. First, of course, Will must encounter his life-changing teacher (I believe the tagline goes something like this: “She taught him how to love, he taught her how to live”... um, blecch). She’s Charlotte Fielding (Ryder), first presented while having her birthday dinner in Will’s multi-star restaurant, surrounded at her table by a bevy of girlfriends wearing what you initially take as ridiculous hats: wires and feathers and little stars with glitter sticking out from their impeccably-coifed heads. Their number includes a gay male friend, apparently included so that the gushing over Will’s “Sexiest Man Alive” status might be affirmed by both genders (Simon, however, is not wearing a hat). Meanwhile, Will’s prowling about the premises, scoping for babes (his maitre d’ and best friend John [Anthony LaPaglia] early on offers to keep “a chute and a cattle prod by the front door” this would be the film’s version of guy humor).
And then, magic. Will and Charlotte’s eyes meet across the proverbial crowded room, their point of view shots artfully obstructed by restaurant decor and passing bodies. And then, more magic. Will finds himself being introduced to Charlotte by an old friend, namely, her affected grandmother Dolly (Elaine Stritch), who knew him back in the day when he was dating her daughter, Charlotte’s mother. In another movie, you might at this moment imagine a stereo needle skritching off the record surface: ffwiiit! But in this movie, Dolly’s concern that maybe Will shouldn’t be dating the girl who could have been his daughter (if he’d ever slept with her mother, which, everyone insists and contrary to everything else we know about him, he did not) is cast aside as square or unromantic or even mean-spirited, since she’s a bitter alcoholic who’s long since lost her wealth and good looks. (Dolly inexplicably describes this fall from grace in the following terms: “One day you’re rich as an Arab, the next day you’re lucky if you can afford pistachio nuts.”)
The “luminous romance” (as it’s termed on the film’s very fancy website) proceeds apace, because, after all, the girl is dying and autumn is a relatively short season in New York. Will escorts Charlotte to some upper-crusty dos, she behaves in a categorically giddy-schoolgirlish manner, giggling, batting her enormous eyes, twisting her gaminey hair and making golly-gee faces when they’re on the phone and he can’t see her (though of course, we are subjected to every twitch and grin). Occasionally Charlotte mouths a pre-emptive joke about the age thing, such as, “I collect antiques.” Most of her dialogue is less direct, though, more cloying and cryptic (usually wolfish Will suggests they not kiss the first time, and she tilts her head to one side, looks off into the distance, and says, “I can smell the rain…” Come again?) She fancies Emily Dickinson, and quotes her a lot, as if to educate her loutish lover (“Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul”), and you know that by the end, he’s quoting Dickinson back at her, so profoundly mutated is he by Charlotte’s influence. She goes so far as to dress up as Dickinson for a Halloween party, and while dressed-as-a-puppy Will is fooling around with his ex (Lynn comes dressed as Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s!), Charlotte’s upstairs in her bonnet, telling stories about butterflies to the hosts’ multitude of children. She is so very nice.
As if to draw attention to such mushy plot elements, the film includes Hallmarky visual effects, from falling yellow leaves and Rockefeller Center ice-skating to roiling river waves beneath a bridge to sex scenes shot as clasped hands seen through filtered glass. But there are moments when it almost looks like Chen (Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl) and DP Changwei Gu (Farewell My Lovely) are making a different movie than the one we’re seeing. The most trivial bits of business turn rather nimble: Will’s daily routine with his chefs is skillfully composed through a series of kitchen appliances (cupboards and hanging implements), run-of-the-mill ballroom dancing suddenly resembles an Impressionist painting, snowy-grey apartment balcony scenes become precise visual poems. But alas, these shots are the exceptions that prove the film’s melodramatic rule.
Since everyone knows what happened to Ali McGraw, Autumn in New York makes gestures toward complicating its story, that is, by complicating Will’s story. Reportedly, this decision to focus on Will has everything to do with Gere’s self-interested involvement in the production process. By now you may have read some of the sniping and countersniping in the press (he told the New York Post she was a “fibbertigibbet” and “Nervous Nellie,” she said she was treated “like a hired hand” on the set), and Allison Burnett’s screenplay was changed to accommodate Gere’s desire to expand his character at the expense of Ryder’s. This in itself isn’t news: the standard agreement in Hollywood has writers give up all rights to their work, and uncredited script changes often lead to a very different “products” than anyone might have envisioned; after all, it can be difficult to say no to superstars, or performers who think of themselves as superstars.
The upshot for Autumn in New York is that Charlotte tends to faint away and Will tends to fret, in exalted close-ups. Each time she collapses, Charlotte winds up in a hospital (looking quite unbelievably lovely, I might add), while her doctor (Mary Beth Hurt, looking very grim) tells Will repeatedly that there’s no hope, that no one will perform a potentially life-saving operation, that the kid is doomed, etc. (Note that the doctor talks to Will, the boyfriend of two months, not Charlotte’s family or friends, or even Charlotte.) In the end, Will’s drama is amplified in a couple of ways, one being his frantic search for a doctor who will perform the surgery. The final irony for some viewers, anyway is that this amazing and courageous surgeon is none other than Oz‘s primo Nazi monster, a.k.a. Prisoner #92S110, a.k.a. Vern Schillinger, a.k.a. the actor, J.K. Simmons. His appearance can only strike terror into the hearts of anyone who gets HBO, can only confirm your worst suspicions that, as John tells Will as soon as he meets Charlotte, “The whole thing is out of whack.” But the characters in Autumn in New York, as privileged as they are, don’t have this crucial background information. And so they hope for the best.