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Like cigarettes, margarine or the Atkins diet, Woody Allen movies are something that used to be considered good for you and are now more or less deemed a health hazard.
Thus, the 83-year-old writer-director’s latest, A Rainy Day in New York — the 49th feature in a filmography that, beyond a few breaks, has kept up a steady frequency of one movie per year since the late 1960s — is unlikely to ever be released on screens in the U.S.
(It is, however, set to open this year’s Deauville American Film Festival on Sept. 6, after which it is slated be released theatrically in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and most of the rest of Europe. Draw your own conclusions about that.)
The reason for Rainy Day’s canceling, in all senses of the term, by Amazon Studios, who shelved the project in 2018 and is now embroiled in a $68 million lawsuit with the director (Allen was handed back U.S. rights to the film in May), has presumably nothing to do with the movie and everything to do with its maker.
Accused of sexual assault by his 7-year-old daughter, Dylan, back in 1992, Allen still managed to work steadily in the decades that followed and actually made his biggest hits more recently: 2011’s Midnight in Paris ($151 million worldwide) and 2013’s Blue Jasmine ($98 million worldwide plus one Academy Award for best actress).
But then an outcry at once personal (from two of his children, Dylan and Ronan Farrow), professional (from former castmembers) and public (from ex-fans and longtime haters) came back to bite him in the #MeToo era. Now the Woodster, as he used to be lovingly called, is persona non grata in America — although he’s still at it behind the camera, shooting his upcoming feature, Rifkin’s Festival, with a predominantly foreign cast in Spain.
Putting aside the backstory for a moment — though when it comes to Allen, the backstory now is the story — what about A Rainy Day in New York? Is the film actually any good?
The answer is: Not really. Or more like, not really in light of Allen’s much better and brighter works (you name them), with this one merely a watchable rehashing of his preferential themes and plot points, set in a present-day Manhattan so nostalgic and unreal it might as well be a period piece.
And also: Not really in light of our current cultural context, with the film’s multiple scenes of a young female journalist being hit on by much older men (including a movie director) playing as cringeworthy, to say the least.
That said, A Rainy Day has its moments, most of them thanks to star Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), who does a terrific job channeling your typical Allenian antihero: a neurotic, scrawny, clever and critical New Yorker who’s also quite the charmer. (Allen performed this role himself until he became too old to do so. Perhaps he could go back to it now using de-aging technology à la The Irishman.)
Chalamet, who made a point of donating his entire salary from the film to charity, plays a young Upper East Sider named Gatsby Welles — a name as heavy-handed as many of the script’s one-liners. But the name also sounds wrong because Gatsby is definitely more of a Holden, as in Holden Caulfield: a downhearted prep school kid raised with season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and summers in the South of France who’s now in quiet rebellion against his own established Manhattanite family.
Currently attending Yardley College (a stand-in for Bard) upstate, Gatsby has come down to the city with his girlfriend, Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), a journalism major who’s landed an interview with the legendary filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber). Over the course of one long and yes, rainy day, the two will barely see each other, with Ashleigh engulfed in her big scoop and Gatsby wandering the streets while trying to avoid family members in town for his mother’s annual gala dinner.
Captured in frosted, glowing digital cinematography by Vittorio Storaro — who’s been working with Allen since 2016’s Café Society and has done his best work with him here — the film, like its characters and narrative, seems to belong to another time: one where you can, say, stumble into Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle (an Allen staple) and find Gatsby in a tweed jacket crooning at the grand piano. Or where you can walk by a student film shoot in the Village and suddenly start making out with the lead actress, which is what happens when Gatsby winds up bumping into Shannon (Selena Gomez), an ex-girlfriend’s younger sister who soon becomes a love interest.
The scene where we see Gatsby and Shannon on the movie set, kissing passionately in a car as raindrops begin to patter down on the windshield, is rather magical, with Storaro giving it the soggy retro feel of a Saul Leiter photograph. There are other moments like that, most of them involving Chalamet staring into the abyss that Manhattan can be when the skies are too overcast and you don’t know what to do with your life.
Much less magical is the whole half of the movie involving the ebullient yet ditzy college blond Ashleigh, a banker’s daughter from Tucson, Arizona. She’s a major film buff (we hear her name-drop Allen favorites like Kurosawa) but is also portrayed here as a naive country bumpkin who’s in way over her head in the Big Apple, especially when dealing with a coterie of highly successful men more than twice her age.
After spending the morning in a SoHo hotel trying to interview the broodingly chic auteur Pollard, who’s in a major funk over his new film in postproduction — a $70 million effort that he calls “an existential steaming shit pile” — Ashleigh is all swoons and excitedly says to Gatsby: “You should hear him talk about the arts!” To which he ponders: “What is it about older guys that seems so appealing to women?” Gulp.
Is Allen referencing his own situation or simply ignoring that it exists? Either way, the line sits in your gut like a triple-decker sandwich from the Carnegie Deli (an Allen staple that probably would’ve appeared here had it not closed in 2016) and remains uneasily with you for the rest of the film. Another one-liner, meant to be a joke about oral sex and bar mitzvahs, may have some viewers reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.
Fanning does her best with such a problematic character, who spends the day passing from one older dude to another. First there’s Pollard, who tells Ashleigh she reminds him of his first wife before disappearing on a drinking binge. Then there’s Pollard’s regular screenwriter (Jude Law), who discovers that his wife (Rebecca Hall) has been cheating on him, in what’s probably the pic’s most blatantly bad scene. And finally there’s matinee idol Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), who whisks Ashleigh away to his giant loft until his girlfriend shows up and he kicks the student out, prompting a scene where Fanning has to hide on a fire escape in her bra and panties.
Not only do these hijinks seem, well, untimely right now — they’re just not that funny. And for what’s supposed to be a romantic comedy, A Rainy Day delivers few good jokes and actually works best when it digs deeper into its own melancholy.
One wishes Allen didn’t try to squeeze so many one-liners and quid pro quos, or force a lame happy ending, out of a movie that’s marked by an intrinsic level of darkness — the latter most evident in a long drawing-room exchange between Gatsby and his mother (Cherry Jones) that feels like something out of The Magnificent Ambersons (thus the name Welles, perhaps).
Other great directors, such as John Ford in his “revisionist” Westerns of the 1960s, managed to get introspective at the end of their careers, questioning their oeuvre in light of changing mores. Allen doesn’t seem willing to go there yet, even if A Rainy Day in New York is filled with a kind of sadness that all the comedy in the world won’t erase.
That sadness is manifested here via nostalgia, both for a New York that no longer exists — and probably only ever existed for millionaires — and for a culture where the encounters between men and the young women they prey on are still played for laughs. Whether Allen’s movies will ever move beyond that sentiment can only be asked after a more crucial question, which is: Will people continue to watch them?
Production company: Gravier Productions
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Liev Schreiber, Jude Law, Rebecca Hall, Diego Luna, Cherry Jones, Kelly Rohrbach
Director-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Erika Aronson, Letty Aronson
Executive producers: Howard E. Fischer, Adam B. Stern
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benziger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Casting director: Patricia DiCerto
Sales: Gravier Productions
Rated PG-13, 92 minutes
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