(This film review of New York, I Love You appeared in a shorter form in the May 20, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.)
New York, I Love You comes from the same group which did Paris, Je t’aime a couple of years ago. It is an ensemble film, with ten segments, each written and shot by a different director. The result is frequently touching, occasionally hilarious, often very sexy and maddeningly uneven and frustrating at times.
New York has been the setting for literally hundreds of films – and has been the scene for some of history’s best movie romances. And this is not the first time that more than one director worked on an anthology film set there: New York Stories (1989) had segments filmed by Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
From the opening shot of the East River, we know we are in a New York closer to Woody Allen than to the grit of Scorsese. It’s an oddly romanticised New York, where no-one is mugged, and there are no knives or guns, just lots of explicit talk about sex.
Two of the ten stories (in fact, two of the best) are explicitly Jewish. The second segment “kosher vegetarian” – directed by India-born Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) has Natalie Portman playing a Hasidic diamond merchant about to get married and purchasing a diamond from a Jain played by classic Indian actor Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire). The story makes little sense, but Portman is great. Here is a link to an interview with Mira Nair, with some clips from the segment:
That’s the way New York, I Love You is: made mostly by an eclectic group international group of directors – Israel-born French Yvan Attal from France, Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) from India, Shunji Iwai from Japan, Fatih Akın from Turkey/Germany, Jiang Wen from China and a handful of Americans – Portman, Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), Allen Hughes (The Book of Eli) and Joshua Marston.
The result is frequently European in feel, a series of delicate sexual comedies filled mostly with migrants (as one character explains: “I love New York because everyone is from somewhere else”), far from the brash Americana, and almost virtually lacking any thick “Noo Yawk” accents. Also lacking is a strong sense of place. Given that hardly any of the directors have actually ever lived in New York, they appear to have all – with only one exception – opted to set their segments in unspecified sites in Manhattan, although some take place in Central Park and at a landmarks such as Tavern on the Green and the Dakota apartment building. Where are the other boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and (the ever-forgotten) Staten Island?
The exception is the other Jewish segment, written and directed by Marston, and starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman as an ageing Jewish couple living near Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. Their story simply has them going to the beach and back home, talking all the time (mostly about Wallach’s character’s infirmities), and consistently entertaining, building on its perfect casting choices. You can actually watch the full 6’14” of this segment online here:
The rest of the cast is also a fascinating “who’s who”. In addition to Portman and Wallach, other Jewish actors include James Caan in an excellent but underwritten role as an Italian pharmacist, Shia LaBoeuf, Justin Bartha and a host of real Hasidic extras. Other actors include Andy Garcia, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Ethan Hawke, Chris Cooper, Robin Wright Penn, Bradley Cooper, Julie Christie and John Hurt.
About six of the stories work very well, and include some truly quirky surprises, like the white guy who speaks fluent Chinese, the woman who turns out to be a hooker (an exquisite piece of filmed theatre by Attal – you can see a short preview here: ), and Ratner’s “the prom” – a scene simultaneously ridiculous, hilarious and touching in a Catcher in the Rye type of way.
There’s lots of depth and clever writing here – so good, in fact, that I am keen to watch many of the segments a second time. But too many characters and not enough interaction between them robs New York, I Love You of its emotional pay-off. There are no transitions between the stories, and although some characters amusingly do travel to a number of segments, the writing (partly by veteran Jewish playwright and screenwriter Israel Horowitz) simply does not make use of the interconnections between the stories in the way that, for instance, the film Babel does so effectively. The problem with the film is that the great scenes simply do not add up, leaving the whole distinctly less than the sum of its parts.