Directorial collaborations are notoriously uneven and almost always judged by the parts while ignoring the sum. A successful portmanteau relies on either a galvanizing theme (September 11), a specific style (Fear(s) of the Dark), or, in some cases the time alloted to gain a sense of nostalgia or of film history (Six in Paris and Love in the City). In almost all cases, however, the shorts feel like half-baked thumbnail sketches from great directors on assignment. And even though New York, I Love You attempts to break out of the slums of omnibus filmmaking by branding itself as “a collective feature film,” it’s really no different. Unlike Paris, J’taime before it, the film flows in a continuous free-form 103-minute feature without title cards or overt transitions, and though that makes it harder to dissect, New York is just as uneven as most of these films tend to be. The highs and the lows blur together and the movie averages out to be somewhere around mediocre.
It’s the second in a series on “the cities of love,” which started in 2007 with the much more enticing Paris, J’taime and supposedly will head off to Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Jerusalem, and Mumbai for successive installments. Given two days to shoot, one week to edit and an eight-minute time limit, ten directors pontificate love in the City of Lights. New York starts with a grift triangle by Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep) and ends with a sweet shuffle off to Coney Island by Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace). The in-between is comprised of a predictably mixed bag. Helmer of the potential blockbuster The Book of Eli, Allen Hughes, turns in the most compelling short here, which stars Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo. Starting in different areas of the city, the two depart to meet-up for a second time after what was supposed to be a one-night-stand, with Matteo on the subway and Cooper walking the streets. Both are buried in their own internal monologue; they relive their first meeting and doggedly refuse to be optimistic about their second. In the process, Hughes successfully captures the electric and intimate energy of being alone in a crowd. Likewise, Yvan Attal’s simple one-on-one short is perfectly pitched, as the ultimate pick-up artist (Ethan Hawke) is served a large plate of crow by a none too naïve woman (Maggie Q). Randall Balsmeyer, primarily a visual effects person, is given the impossible task of connecting the stories and admirably does so with vignettes that occasionally intersect characters from separate segments, lending the film a small-world-after-all feeling.
The biggest disappointment is how little New York invokes a sense of place. It wields its secret weapon —The Big Apple, The City that Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot — like a wet noodle. Supposedly, each segment is set within a specific neighborhood, but that unfortunately doesn’t translate to the screen. I’ve never seen New York City look so boring, and, well, so Anglo and straight. Irrfan Khan, Shu Qi, Uğur Yücel, Carlos Acosta, and I guess Shia LaBeouf (who plays an immigrant) are the only ethnic representations of the most culturally diverse city in the world. It’s hard to believe that the creative muscle behind this film — which includes the aforementioned directors as well as Fatih Akin, Shunji Iwai, Mira Nair, and Shekhar Kapur — could only muster a tepid mish-mash that has no spark. “New York, I Love You” serves best as a dramatized runway for its actors, while the audience, completely unengaged in the plot, can take some pleasure seeing the multigenerational stars hit the screen one at a time. It says a lot about a film if its most memorable moment occurs when someone behind you yells, “Oh my God! It’s Christina Ricci!”