Near the beginning of “New York, I Love You,” a woman amicably chats with a cab driver about African music. Suddenly, a man slides into the seat next to her, unaware that the taxi was occupied. He apologizes and starts to leave, but she insists they share the ride together. He looks at her, she looks at him, and they seem to want to start a conversation, but neither can find anything to say. So, they resume looking out their respective windows in silence for the remainder of the journey.
“New York, I Love You”
At the State
This encounter lasts all of three minutes, yet it’s a perfect encapsulation of what it means to live in the city of strangers. Unfortunately, this type of scene, with all of the human awkwardness and discomfort, doesn’t appear nearly often enough.
Proclaimed to be an anthology on life, love and the city encircling it all, “New York, I Love You” features 11 vignettes individually directed by heavyweights (Mira Nair, “Amelia”) and beginners (Randall Balsmeyer, “Sesame Street”) alike. For most of the film, “New York” abandons all human aspects of a relationship in favor of a high-gloss imitation of one. As a result, it becomes a pretty film that seems to have a lot to say but ends up not saying much.
The film manages to capture the surface-level “essence” of New York — the feeling portrayed in the picture-perfect postcards that tourists send back home. Undeniably, “New York” is a gorgeous movie. In transitions, the camera roams around the sun-steeped benches of Central Park down to the dizzying crowds of Grand Central Station then across the grimy filth of Chinatown. Shekhar Kapur (“Elizabeth”) delicately directs Julie Christie in a gossamer-winged sequence soaked with fantasy. But it’s beauty without meaning — an artificial gloss trying to transform a frothy confection into something substantial.
One of the film’s more redeeming qualities is the generous wattage of star power. Orlando Bloom (the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Natalie Portman (“V for Vendetta”), Ethan Hawke (“Training Day”), Julie Christie (“Away From Her”), Cloris Leachman (“Young Frankenstein”) Rachel Bilson (TV’s “The O.C.”) and — with a rather atrocious Russian accent that screams anachronism — Shia LaBeouf (“Transformers”) round out the impressive cast. Yet even this quality is skin-deep, as it features beautiful, white actors playing beautiful, white roles. There is certainly an attempt at diversity, but it comes off as stereotype (Indian as diamond peddler, Chinese as herbalist, etc.).
It’s impossible to assess the film without also considering its predecessor, “Paris, je t’aime.” While “Paris” assumes the humble task of discretely segmenting each component of the city, “New York” tries to join all these segments into a cohesive narrative. And that’s the problem. For one, it’s difficult to tell when one story ends and the other starts, and the brain constantly has to make leaps into previous memories to remember who each character is. For another, these efforts at cohesiveness limit the individual creative visions of each director.
The result is a group of largely homogenized segments, none of them revealing a true aspect of New York’s underbelly. Thus, it is the ambition of “New York” that is ultimately its downfall. “Paris” achieved cohesion because it wasn’t looking for it; “New York” fails to because it’s so contrived.
Still, the benefit of having 11 short segments is that the film never gets boring. As with any anthology project, the bad parts end quickly, and the good ones end too soon. Thankfully, the strong segments still outnumber the weaker ones. Director Brett Ratner (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), of all people, gives a surprisingly funny and touching segment of a boy taking a paraplegic girl to prom after his leggy girlfriend dumps him. Hawke, still charming at 38, tries to woo a young sophisticate during an intimate cigarette break. And Portman helms a cute yet unsubstantial passage about a little girl and her male nanny in her directorial debut.
Carefully toeing the line of mediocrity, “New York, I Love You” is a difficult film to classify — it’s not great, not awful, but at least it’s never boring. For those featured directors starving for more public recognition, it’s a good jumping-off point. And for people who come into the film with no expectations, a couple segments might just stand out. In terms of accomplishing its goal, though, “New York” drastically fails.