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Autumn in New York

Director: Joan Chen
Cast: Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch

(MGM; 2000)

Torture in New York

While watching Autumn in New York, I was struck by its parallel to the Clinton-Lewinsky business. There are superficial similarities, especially in the lead players — a powerful 50-ish man with gray hair and a 20-ish brunette with stars in her eyes — and perhaps some deeper similarities. But these have nothing to do with the film, which at first attracted media attention due to its high-profile lead players, Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. However, this early interest, which may also have been spawned by a giddy desire for scandal, quickly gave way to revulsion, then settled into boredom.


Autumn in New York is a love story. Rich and glamorous restaurateur Will Keane (Gere, who is no longer 48 years old, Will’s age) treats women with no more respect than his next gourmet meal. He has not yet discovered that in relationships you can have your cake and eat it too. All that changes when he meets Charlotte Fielding (Ryder), a young woman who has all the trappings of a good romantic heroine. She’s 22 (even though Winona is actually 29), she’s pretty in a waifish kind of way, and she’s dying. And true of all highly sentimental claptrap, this heroine wanders around the movie absorbed in artistic pursuits (making hats and playing with beads) while spouting poetry, badly.


There are two major problems with this film: the unromantic pairing of Gere and Ryder and the formulaic plot that attempts to evoke sympathy through sentimentality. Will meets Charlotte briefly at his restaurant, then tricks her into going out with him, by asking her to design a hat for his date for a huge gala dinner. When she shows up at his apartment to deliver the hat, Will explains that the date is ill, and asks Charlotte to go in her stead. Amazingly, he has purchased her a complete outfit for the occasion. Now, please, a guy who buys a dress, shoes, and undergarments for a girl he has spoken to only once before, is likely to be called many things, none of them “romantic.”


As we quickly discover in this film, Will has some serious dominance issues. He accepts Charlotte’s adoration without thinking he has to return or respect it, and after the couple engage in the obligatory fight, he turns up in her bedroom, waiting for her like a garden variety stalker. Finally, when Charlotte gets sick (as you know she will) Will takes matters into his own hands, marching in to see her doctor to find out the diagnosis and repeatedly disregarding Charlotte’s wishes for her own treatment. He’s no more subtle than a Tarzan comic: “You sick, me fix.” And to back up this patriarchal theme, Will finds a maverick doctor who only takes desperate cases like Charlotte’s, probably because he likes the glamour of making it right.


The audience might see Will’s flaws, but Charlotte doesn’t. Rather, she falls for him completely, plays little childish games with him on their first date, preferring to sit in the front seat of the limo, then leaving him stranded on the sidewalk while she has the limo circle the block. It would all be rather cute if it were not so forced. There is no chemistry between Gere and Ryder: none, nada, zip. So, when Gere leans in for the first big juicy kiss, it’s stomach-turningly repulsive. Remember the scene in American Beauty when Kevin Spacey looked about to seduce Mena Suvari? For me, that scene caused a physical reaction, as I hoped against hope that he wouldn’t touch her. It’s the same here, only Will does touch.


When Will explains to Charlotte that their relationship can’t work, she agrees, adding in her “oh-so-sweet” way that she is, in fact, dying. From there, the movie becomes totally pathetic. Now, pathetic is an ambiguous word, meaning either capable of arousing sympathetic compassion or scornful pity. In my opinion, it’s all scorn. Maybe if we cared about these characters — if we saw some sign of Will actually becoming human and developing genuine feelings for Charlotte, or if she had any personality at all — we might be able to feel some sadness at their plight. But it would seem that the only reason these two are together is because the script put them there. In an attempt to add some life to this drivel, someone added a sub-plot, which begins as a mystery but appears to have been included merely to provide a mawkish ending. As well, there are the obligatory character-actor parts: like every cad in existence, Will has his Jiminy Cricket sidekick to remind him that he is a jerk, here Anthony LaPaglia as John the bartender in Will’s restaurant. And Elaine Stritch plays Charlotte’s grandmother, Dolly, the only character who seems sincere: she alone won my compassion


Much of the movie seems to have been “designed” more than plotted: it features good cinematography (by Changwei Gu), even if the subjects filmed are as predictable as everything else. The leaves fall from trees; it is autumn, remember. And Will lives in an architecturally stunning apartment; after all, he is a self-absorbed jerk. As well, the distance you feel from the characters does allow time to ponder the score by Gabriel Yared, whose penchant for wailing violins only adds to the film’s melancholy lethargy. Sadly, there is little to recommend Autumn in New York. The city looks good, but that small consolation won’t help you plow your way through this heavy-handed and frankly dull film.

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