Editor’s note: “A Rainy Day in New York” opens this week in Paris. It does not have U.S. distribution.
Here’s the thing. You can certainly watch Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” trying to divorce the film itself from the controversy that surrounds Allen himself. When actors Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning show up onscreen swaddled in tweed and smelling of mothballs, you can appreciate how the young performers spit out the filmmaker’s signature dialogue – to greater or lesser success – focusing on the actors’ work, and not the fact that they would later renounce it. Only, once you do focus on the film itself, and not the circumstances of its release, you come face to face with another, nigh insurmountable obstacle: the iPhone.
Indeed, if the presence of smartphones and their accessories and the references to Jeb Bush and the 1% might anchor “A Rainy Day in New York” to the here-and-now (or rather, the here-and-then of a couple years ago, when the film was shot), everything else in this snow-globe reimagining of the Upper East Side feels like it belongs to another world – and in more ways than one.
Taken alone, that’s not necessarily a problem. “Rainy Day” finds Allen renewing his winning partnership with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro for another gold-and-amber-hued waltz that swoons along the trails of Central Park, through the halls of the Met and into the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. Though the collaborators build upon that lush romanticism that marked their previous work in “Café Society” and “Wonder Wheel,” that glow of nostalgia plays differently when adjusted for the present tense, resulting a work that feels stodgily anachronistic.
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Allen knows as much, one would imagine, because his whole project here is to engineer some kind of alternate today where all the hot young things coo over Irving Berlin and drop casual references to Maurice Chevalier. Hell, that’s at least partly why he named his lead Gatsby Welles (Chalamet, riffing on the standard Woody archetype without quite hitting the mark). A sullen, upper-class scion not doing much of anything at some fictional upstate college, Gatsby (the awkward name does pay off…sort of) decides to hop the Greyhound to the Big Apple when his budding journalist girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning, gesticulating wildly) lands an interview with an acclaimed film director.
And so the young couple hoof it to New York for what’s supposed to be a romantic getaway, but what turns into – as Jeff Daniel’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” character might call it – a madcap Manhattan weekend that sends each one down their separate path.
Bubbly, wide-eyed and deeply credulous, Ashleigh sets off to interview brooding filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) and finds herself pulled into the director’s high-strung social circle, which also includes his screenwriter (Jude Law), the latter’s unhappy spouse (Rebecca Hall), and a libidinous leading man (Diego Luna). Meanwhile, the grey Gatsby spends most of his time trawling the streets of the city trying to avoid his own family and peers, and eventually falls into an extended flirtation with Shannon (Selena Gomez), the younger sister of a former fling.
The fact that the script trades in so many of the filmmaker’s common motifs – wouldn’t you know it, another love triangle between a nebbish, a blonde and brunette set in the neurotic world of Manhattan creatives – does not seem lost of the film’s young cast, who often dim their unique charismatic qualities to play within a certain Woody Allen register. Of the three leads, only Gomez comes out on top, playing against the material, cutting through with her own attitude rather than reflecting acting choices Tony Roberts or Diane Keaton might have made four decades prior.
Not that Chalamet or Fanning are particularly bad, mind you; they’re just subsumed by the responsibilities of acting in a run-of-the-mill Woody Allen flick that never offers them anything more than the chance to act in a run-of-the-mill Woody Allen flick. Just like that film-within-a –film from “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Rainy Day” also wants to offer a measure of big screen escapism, whisking us on a tour of upper crust’s favorite haunts as filtered through the filmmaker’s singular style.
To those who enjoy that register – and, as goes without saying, those who wish to continue to patronize his films – “Rainy Day” offers all the modest pleasures we have come to expect, but never anything more. One day, this could make for an interesting double-bill with Chalamet’s upcoming Wes Anderson pic, “The French Dispatch,” because just like the idiosyncratic Texan, late-period Woody Allen has become an entirely insular artist, making hermetically sealed works that enshrine the filmmakers tics and obsessions behind a display case. Which makes it all the more jarring to when an iPhone creeps in.
Here is where we should reckon with the director’s own fallen status within the American industry, and in many ways, “A Rainy Day in New York” makes that easy to do, because this arch tale of modern-day twentysomethings who trade exclusively in references to Grace Kelly and “Guys and Dolls” is not only a valentine to days gone by – it is very much an artifact of a different era.
Allen and Storaro were able to access so many New York City landmarks and shoot them so beautifully in no small part to due a generous Amazon Studios budget the likes of which Allen will probably not see again. Though the director will continue to work (and has already shot a new film in Spain), “Rainy Day” is almost certainly his last to feature so many rising young talents from the US industry. For all we know, it could be the last he shoots on U.S. soil. All of which makes the perfectly mediocre “A Rainy Day in New York” such a curious little item – for all its stodgy touches, the film itself is like a cast-in-amber relic of the not-so-distant past.