When is it time to retire? As many sexagenarians these days will tell you, 60 is the new 40. Just look at the likes of Alan Arkin, George Segal, Donald Sutherland, Betty White and others who are still going strong in their 80s and beyond. As long as you enjoy what you do, you’re healthy and you can continue to bring a fresh perspective to your work, why not keep working? Maybe that’s why Woody Allen still is. At age 83, Allen is still pumping out movies at the rate of about one a year. The problem with him, though, is that his perspective is anything but fresh. The four-time Oscar winner seems to be stuck in neutral giving audiences story after story of middle aged men hitting on much younger women. Forty years ago, he gave us MANHATTAN, a tale of a relationship between twice divorced, 42-year-old Isaac (played by Allen himself) and 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). At the time, it seemed a bit misplaced but no one minded too much as it was also a love letter to New York, and the film won a number of major awards including the César (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) award for Best Foreign Film, and the National Board of Review award for Best Film. Times have changed though, and audiences are no longer okay with seeing that kind of relationship dynamic on screen. (Allen marrying Soon-yi Previn, his ex-partner’s daughter, and the allegations that he sexually abused his and Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, certainly haven’t helped his case either.) Allen, though, seems unperturbed by the kerfuffle and he keeps on making stories that revolve around unequal relationships.
That’s what we have with his latest film, A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK, a film that was completed late last year but sat on the shelf by its distributor, Amazon Studios, in wake of the #MeToo movement. (In February 2019, Allen filed a US$68 million lawsuit against Amazon for failing to meet its contractual obligations and in May it was reported that Amazon had returned the U.S. distribution rights to Allen.) The film has so far not been released in the States, and probably won’t be unless he finds another distributor (good luck with that!), but it is slowly making its way elsewhere around the world, landing here in Hong Kong this week.
In A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK, rich kid Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME; LADY BIRD; BEAUTIFUL BOY) is student at a “tony” — his word, not mine — Liberal Arts college in upstate New York. Not your typical teenager seen these days, Gatsby enjoys playing hotel bar jazz standards, particularly on the piano at the Café Carlysle in Manhattan. (Allen is noted for being a regular performer there.) He also likes playing high stakes poker, which he’s very good at too. When his girlfriend, Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning, THE BEGUILED), tells him that she will be going down to the Big Apple to interview noted filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber, FADING GIGOLO; SPOTLIGHT; ISLE OF DOGS) for their college newspaper (do colleges still have print media?), Gatsby offers to go with her to show her around his city. Once they arrive though, a series of events keeps the pair apart throughout the day (while the rain falls, of course), as the naïve Ashleigh gets drawn into Pollard’s chaotic world of horny middle aged men who hit on her while Gatsby runs into Shannon (singer Selena Gomez), the younger sister of an old girlfriend.
It’s virtually impossible to separate Allen from his films as his male leads are often avatars of himself in days gone by. (I seem to be using that word “avatar” a lot lately but it fits here.) Gatsby is in many ways Allen — highly literate New Yorker, ’50s jazz lover, romancer of blonde shiksa goddesses,… but so is Pollard. Thankfully, neither did Chalamet nor Schreiber adopt the nebbishy whine that we’ve come to associate with Allen. Gatsby, though, is a rather heavy-handed nod and a wink to “The Great Gatsby”, with Allen showing today’s audiences that money and power haven’t changed much in ninety years. But A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK is more than just a modernish riff on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork. It also plays with the themes of teenage alienation and the loss of innocence found in J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. If anything, Gatsby is more like Holden Caulfield than Jay Gatsby. (I haven’t yet figured out if Welles is a nod to Orson Welles but it probably is.)
A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK may have worked and been appreciated in 1979 but in 2019 it’s seen as tired and slightly creepy. Even the performances, which are good all around, can’t save this film from its director. Allen is undaunted though. Word is that he’s hard at work on his next film, his 50th behind the camera, which is due out next year. This time, though, he’s left the city he loves behind and has shot the film in Spain. We’ll have to wait and see if the change in location will bring some new spark to his perspective or if it will be the same old, same old. If it’s the latter, maybe it’ll be time for him to retire.
A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK is mildly entertaining but it’s far from being Allen’s best work.
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