Thanks to the surprise success of producer Emmanuel Benbihy's "Paris, je t'aime," we will now have to endure a series of planned omnibus-film tributes to cities around the world clunked together with submissions from various trendy directors. After Paris, New York is the brow-furrowing first of these. Call them glimpses, snapshots, whatever: the short films in "New York I Love You" are really just a bunch of undernourished anecdotes that together comprise a tedious tangle of strictly hetero couplings meant to stand in for the contemporary Manhattan experience. That this supposed love letter to New York as a city of chance, romance, and possibility cannot make room for a single same-sex tale in any of its twelve threads reveals its limited vision. Those outside of the Big Apple might take to the shallow urban exoticism this film offers, but real New Yorkers, as well as anyone with a functioning bullshit detector, will shudder. Oh the wide web of interconnections we (or at least some of us) weave.
Of course, one can only take a project like "New York I Love You" to task for its bogus interconnectedness for so long. Sure, it's enervating at this point to watch depictions of cities reduced to emblems of ennui or elevated to storybook fantasies of outsized ambitions--but for a film made by so many different filmmakers it all ultimately comes down to the success of the individual components. The best that can be said of this new film is that the structure imposed on the participating directors (each had to be based around a particular New York neighborhood; each had to be about a love encounter) at least cuts down on the chance for the kind of idiotic fantasy non sequiturs indulged in the more disjointed "Paris je t'aime" by such impostors as Wes Craven and Vincenzo Natali. However, the results are hardly unified, a ratty series of self-consciously adorable encounters that rarely feature anyone who seems authentically human (let alone a New Yorker). These aren't people, but stand-ins for ideas about what city life is supposed to be.
This is possibly what Benbihy intended when he lassoed this group of filmmakers together, most not from New York. But the result is not only a lack of insight into the central purported subject matter but also just more opportunities for the directors to fall back on their usual thematic and aesthetic habits. Horror of horrors, "New York I Love You" even enables insufferable French rom-com caterer Yvan Attal to make not one but two of his patented verbose battles of the sexes, the first featuring an alarmingly smoker-voiced Ethan Hawke coming on obnoxiously strong to a statuesque woman on the street outside a downtown restaurant, the latter an uptown inverse starring Robin Wright Penn and Chris Cooper, featuring a "twist" ending visible from a mile away. Also, note to Attal: after "Happily Ever After" and now this, it's time to officially put Radiohead's "No Surprises" to rest as musical accompaniment to middle-agers dining quietly in fancy restaurants.
If it seems we've heard Attal's song before, the same could be said of what we see, as in the well-rehearsed visual approaches and narrative ticks of Fatih Akin, Mira Nair, and especially Shekhar Kapur, who's never filmed a simple exchange between two humans he couldn't strangle to death with blown-out lighting, overstylized art direction, and in-your-face compositions. Yet Kapur's hilariously arch Upper East Side hotel-set segment (based on a script by Anthony Minghella, who planned on directing before he died in 2008) is also indicative of the films' general problems with character -- they're often symbols rather than people, especially Kapur and Minghella's: Julie Christie's ailing hotel guest and the Russian bellboy played by Shia LaBeouf, with an accent AND the most pronounced limp this side of Marty Feldman in "Young Frankenstein," are improbable to say the least.
If the notion of Hollywood stars like LaBeouf slumming it for indie cred doesn't appeal to you, then the less said about the participation of Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Bradley Cooper, James Caan, Natalie Portman, and Hayden Christensen (the latter two comprising the "Star Wars" reunion no one wanted) the better. Like the directors, who mistake "unabashedly romantic" for severely contrived, the actors come down with a severe case of cutie-itis, whether they're in their twenties or eighties, as with Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach, taking part in a little geriatric burlesque in Joshua Marston's final segment. There's so much facileness on display that there's even room for Brett Ratner, who, as the press notes amusingly reveal, muscled his way into the project when he got wind of it, rather than signing on by invitation like everyone else. His resulting piece--a tasteless bit of reportedly autobiographical puffery with Anton Yelchin taking a lusty wheelchair-bound girl to the prom at Tavern on the Green--exposes the whole project's general lack of standards. In the ultimate contrivance, all these disparate characters come together by suddenly finding themselves photographed on the sides of buildings in a video project reminiscent of Doug Aitken's mammoth 2007 MoMA installation "Sleepwalkers." Projecting large such barely conceived characters only emphasizes their smallness.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]