Credit: Jessica Miglio
by Morris Yang Featured Film Spotlight

A Rainy Day in New York | Woody Allen

November 16, 2020

Woody Allen’s long-delayed latest isn’t among the director’s most psychologically incisive works, but its minor-key efforts reflect a curious transposition of the director’s old-fashioned absorptions onto a modern metropolitan setting.

Make no mistake — Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York is far from the auteur’s best work, and it makes no pretensions otherwise. It’s the only of his films since 1982’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy to come after a full calendar year without a film release for the director, and it has received a largely chilly response, when it’s received any response at all. Of course, most of the criticism levied against the film has less to do with its content and more a provenance come under renewed vitriol over the alleged sexual abuse of his daughter some twenty-seven years prior. For moral detractors of Allen, the film’s very existence is testament to the wider industry’s failings in a new age of systematic cancel culture; never mind that his auteur status, post-#MeToo, has been revoked in a country that once venerated him (2017’s Wonder Wheel served as the New York Film Festival’s closing film, whereas A Rainy Day in New York was given an initial theatrical release in Poland). Critical naysayers point to his self-aggrandizing misanthropy, thematic rehashes, and ephebophilic tendencies as hallmarks of a perennial narcissist unable to outgrow himself and his dated ideas of comedy. Both groups will find support for their stance in his second-latest addition — Allen has since made Rifkin’s Festival, which recently premiered at the eponymous San Sebastián event — to a decades-spanning corpus of inquiries into the illusions and disillusions of human relationships, for, as it were, A Rainy Day in New York espouses an anachronistic and almost fantastical outlook, unapologetically removed from contemporary realism. A sound argument could be made that it even operates as a pastiche of Allen’s own filmography and of his most grating tendencies. And while this would be construed as regressive in some quarters, the whimsical lightheartedness percolating through the gloomy sky makes a case for Allen: he hardly intends to capitulate to the modern world’s cultural or political expectations of him, being an undisputed master of the genre his career came to define.

Set on a rainy day in New York, the film follows the separate exploits of Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet) and his girlfriend, Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning), over one eventful afternoon. Ashleigh has come to the city to interview a famous movie director for her college newspaper, and Gatsby, a native to Manhattan, has made plans to show her around. They attend the same liberal arts college, belong to the same upper-class stratum (their families are wealthy banking types), and both revel in creativity (she a wide-eyed journalism major, he a brainy daydreamer and gambler), which in theory should make them the best fit for each other. Of course, any conventional narrative — not just one by Allen — would call into question that assumption for the sake of story, and so the couple go their separate ways, though not by choice: the director invites Ashleigh to a test screening of his latest film, which disrupts Gatsby’s plans for lunch. He strolls around the city, bumps into a few friends, and then stumbles onto a film shoot where he meets the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend and kisses her for a scene; Ashleigh’s screening, meanwhile, turns into a wild goose chase when the director bails and his screenwriter unravels an affair his wife is having, all before Ashleigh bumps into a dashing movie star who takes her out to dinner. With no one to accompany him for the evening, and forced by an unfortunate encounter to attend one of his mother’s insufferable soirées, Gatsby enlists the company of a premium escort who impersonates his unacquainted girlfriend.

Like most of Allen’s films, A Rainy Day in New York finds itself comfortably situated in a demographic of privilege, entrenched within the lives of liberal-bourgeois New Yorkers; its broader societal relevance is therefore debatable, to put it mildly. And yet, unlike his strangely acclaimed Midnight in Paris, it does not fall prey to the latter’s plasticized and ahistorical attempts at historicization, whose consumerist abstraction of High Culture per se exposes a gaping vacuousness at the center of its nostalgic endeavor. (Both films are emblematic of bourgeois fantasy, but A Rainy Day in New York at least never claims to be anything but.) At its heart is the story of a city’s streets, haunts, and possibilities, enticing two lovers away from a picturesque but prosaic arrangement. One rekindles an old, unconscious flame; another explores the uncharted world of masculine promiscuity. Chalamet, the latest in a list of Allen stand-ins, plays a young man sufficiently intelligent and creative but deficient in purpose and optimism. This precocious disillusionment with his ossified place in society recognizes the sheer material privileges it is accorded but does not shy away from commenting on it nonetheless. Fanning, in one of her more sensitive performances, exhibits a naïveté that, while perhaps overly exaggerated, offers a fairly veridical assessment of the art world’s unsightly sexual dynamics — all three men profess varying types of attraction toward her, and the televised nature of her innocuous meeting with the movie star, suggested as a possible new affair, offers a foreboding glimpse at tabloid media’s fickle sensationalism.

Perhaps it is this humanizing — or, more accurately, centering — of his ostensibly vapid characters that has earned Allen the wrath of tired critics. Gatsby, one of many manifestations of dissonance between the smartphone era and the film’s coterie of outdated references (a personal favorite being Yasser Arafat), lacks the affective neuroticism of Allen himself but is no less disengaged from and contemptuous of the real world. Like his creator, he whines; about his foiled weekend plans, his antipathy to haute culture whilst revering the worldly Cole Porter, etc. He later inherits a scandalous family secret from his mother, which might be interpreted as glib given its rather sudden reveal along with her dismissive attitude towards the evening’s imposter. But disdain arguably misses the point: formally, A Rainy Day in New York occupies a curiously liminal space in time, the transposition of its old-fashioned, Allenite formulae onto the modern scene very much an inverse of Midnight in Paris (where the worst of postmodern sensibilities adulterated Owen Wilson’s Modernist reverie). Its insular world demonstrates its own romantic foibles and nebbishes, made accessible by Allen’s more forgiving sympathies and Vittorio Storaro’s exquisitely golden lensing. Ending on a bittersweet, optimistic note, it marks a decidedly minor entry in Allen’s infamously neurotic oeuvre, but should not be mistaken as inferior; while lacking the psychological incisiveness of his best (e.g. Husbands and Wives, Deconstructing Harry), it remains a late-period ode to a past set in the present, and sadly, given his tarnished reputation in America, the last to feature its metropolitan glamour for the foreseeable future.