New York has hosted countless cinematic romances, from the tragic West Side Story and unforgettable An Affair to Remember to the modern day fairytale Sex and the City.
So, following the enthusiastic response to Paris, Je t’aime, it’s no surprise that the Big Apple was the next choice for a tapestry of cosmopolitan love stories. This American cousin is inferior to the French original, but succeeds as a gorgeous portrait of the titular city, with glimpses of silver screen brilliance.
Like its predecessor, New York, I Love You is made up of a series of vaguely connected short films, each by a different director, including Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) and Natalie Portman. There are 11 in the final cut – Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut starring Kevin Bacon, and Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s featuring Carla Gugino, Goran Visnjic and Nicholas Purcell, will be saved for the DVD. Each filmmaker had to adhere to three guidelines: 24 hours to shoot; a week to edit; and a conveyed sense of a particular neighborhood.
The stories take place in New York’s five boroughs, and encompass a spectrum of romance, from long-term to passing fancy, and across religious, linguistic, cultural and age divides.
A wise-cracking pickpocket (Hayden Christenson) finds himself outclassed by the sleight of hand of his older romantic rival (Andy Garcia), undermining his attempts to win the girl (Rachel Bilson). Shortly before her wedding, a young Jewish woman (Natalie Portman) haggles over jewellery prices with her Jain supplier (Irrfan Khan), and finds they can understand each other unexpectedly well.
While scoring an animation, a composer (Orlando Bloom) struggles with his demanding employer, finding solace in the telephone support of their unseen liaison (Christina Ricci). Two sets of strangers (Ethan Hawke, Maggie Q, Robin Wright Penn, Chris Cooper), united by smoking cigarettes outdoors, speak frankly about sex in pairs, with unexpected consequences.
The night of his prom, a teenager (Anton Yelchin) faces embarrassment when he has to take his chemist’s (James Caan) wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) as his date. A man (Bradley Cooper) and woman (Drea de Matteo), who have had what was meant to be a one night stand, agonize over their arrangement to meet up a second time.
A faded songbird (Julie Christie) broods in a stark, dilapidated hotel, drawn to the young, crippled porter (Shia La Boeuf) who tries to cheer her up with violets and champagne. A man (Carlos Acosta) and little girl (Taylor Geare) spend a carefree day in Central Park.
In Chinatown, a reclusive, laconic artist feverishly creates soy sauce paintings, hoping to convince his latest muse, a Chinese herbalist (Shu Qi), to pose for him. A young couple (Justin Bartha and Eva Amurri) bicker about romantic spontaneity, while an older couple (Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) also argue, reflecting on their 63 years of marriage.
Meanwhile, a French video artist films everything that catches her eye, and several characters encounter each other in the backseat of a cab driven by a man, who like everyone else in the city (and especially the film), is more than he initially seems.
These almost-dozen tales, all boasting pretty camerawork that well showcases the different corners of the city, vary in effectiveness. All initially draw you into their small worlds, but few live up to their promise. The best are Portman’s debut, with ballet superstar Acosta, which aptly captures the joy of being a kid, magnifying the wonder of Central Park through Geare’s wide eyes, and Yvan Attal’s (The Interpreter) segment, with the two smoking couples.
Nair’s sequence, featuring Portman and Khan, is self-conscious, eliciting laughs through verbal sparring and surreal imagery, without adding up to anything meaningful. Brert Ratner’s (X-Men: The Last Stand) with bright young things Yelchin and Thirlby, is cute but cheap, while Shekhar Kapur’s (Elizabeth) segment, with Christie and LaBeouf, is thought-provoking, yet out of place. The remaining shorts are forgettable or overwrought, but the way everything loosely comes together is sweet, if not entirely satisfying, so you are likely to exit the cinema with a smile.
Most the acting from the impressive collection of cast members meets expectations. LaBeouf, Geare and Wright Penn deliver the most memorable performances. Portman, despite her victory behind the camera, is jarring as the Jewish bride-to-be, her accent lacking authenticity. Hawke is the most irritating, as a chatterbox who has a lot of confidence about his sexual ability.
As a romantic film, New York, I Love You falls short. As an ensemble piece, it fails to add up to more than the sum of its parts – it’s no Magnolia, Crash or even Love Actually.
But as a love letter to a vibrant city, it triumphs, making one dream of hopping on the next plane to New York. Now, if someone could make a Jakarta, I Love You, it could do wonders for tourism…
New York, I Love You (2009, Vivendi Entertainment, 103 minutes)
Directed by Jiang Wen, Mira Nair, Shunji Iwai, Yvan Attal, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes, Shekhar Kapur, Natalie Portman, Fatih Akin, Joshua Marston, Randy Balsmeyer
Produced by Emmanuel Benbihy, Marina Grasic
Written by Fatih Akin, Keenan Donahue, Natalie Portman, Anthony Minghella, Joshua Marston, Jeff Nathanson, Hu Hong, Jiang Wen, Meng Yao, Suketu Mehta, Shunji Iwai, Olivier L*cot, Yvan Attal, Xan Cassavetes, Stephen Winter, Hall Powell, Israel Horovitz, James Strouse
Starring Bradley Cooper, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Olivia Thirlby, Julie Christie, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Cooper, Cloris Leachman