After a run of releasing a film into cinemas every year since 1969, Woody Allen’s remarkable streak came to an end in 2018 when A Rainy Day in New York failed to appear on the big screen.
There was a legal wrangle with its backer, Amazon Studios, and various issues around Allen’s sudden toxicity in the wake of accusations from his estranged daughter Dylan Farrow. It was an ugly business all round and looked like a sad end to one of the great movie careers.
However, Allen has battled back and A Rainy Day in New York is getting a UK release, like so many other films now, on digital platforms coming straight into your home and, as you know, I think a Woody Allen film is always something to look forward to, even in recent times, when fans such as me have to stand by and watch him get trashed by other reviewers.
The small screen is, to be honest, no place to enjoy the golden-hued visual palette of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the Italian cameraman behind Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, with whom Woody has formed a late-career partnership and they certainly make New York look wistfully beautiful, even if the city itself has become a sterile tourist attraction-cum-shopping mall compared to that gorgeous, evocative, mysterious place conjured by the montage of monochrome images at the opening of Manhattan. Or maybe its the eye of the beholder that’s changed.
Perhaps more than any other filmmaker (Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have their own distinctive and defining visions), the films of Woody Allen have nailed a certain notion of New York. From those opening credits of Manhattan, to the neurotic relationship movies such as Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters and Broadway Danny Rose, Allen’s characters have been a fabric of the city and a product of it – and the city has been one of his regular major players, as fragile and fractured and noisy as the characters themselves. Whilst New York plays a part here, it feels more of a backdrop than a player in this latest romantic comedy, and I’m not sure it looks particularly glistening under the rain.
There’s a wistfulness to watching it now, though, that may be nothing do with the movie but everything do with timing. With the young people dashing about in cafes and hotels, hailing cabs, kissing and wandering around museums, it’s supposed to be a contemporary comedy, but what with Allen’s stubborn old-fashionedness and the sudden conventions of the Covid lockdown age, it all feels like a byonge era.
I guess this rather suits the story of Gatsby Welles, a wealthy young Manhattanite, nicely played by Timothee Chalamet, who brings his college girlfriend to the city for a weekend but tries to avoid going home to visit his well-heeled parents. The girlfriend, Ashleigh Enright, is played by Elle Fanning in preppy pink jumpers and tartan skirts, nervous because she’s landed a big interview for the college paper with the well-known movie director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber). While Gatsby plods round various haunts, bumping into old friends, looking for old songs and poker games, the pretty, ditzy Ashleigh gets caught up in a roundelay of inappropriate male advances, from the director, his angry screenwriter (Jude Law) and a preening actor (Diego Luna).
Gatsby’s story line is fine. He meets the younger sister of an old girlfriend (a sparky performance from Selena Gomez), sings a rendition of Everything Happens To Me at the piano, and hangs out amid the murals in the famous Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle. Ashleigh, meanwhile, can’t help but find herself pursued by men, ending up locked out in her underwear on Diego Luna’s fire escape.
There’s some deft writing here, as you’d expect from the most-nominated screenwriter in Oscar history, but you also expect a bit more from his characters. It’s not just Woody who’s a bit stuck in the past, but the viewer, straining to remember how Woody would have made it all zing in his heyday.
Ashleigh is inconsistent – is she smart, or an airhead? Why is Gatsby even with her? Gatsby’s sarcastic asides are all jokes from at least the 1950s, referencing Sky Masterson, Of Mice and Men, Grace Kelly and Gigi. Of course, she doesn’t get any of them. “That’s Shakespeare, right?” she giggles when he quotes Cole Porter’s Night and Day. It just doesn’t work. When Annie Hall was distracted, she was still adorable and intelligent; when Mia Farrow’s Cecilia was duped by Jeff Daniels’ Hollywood actor, she was still pitiable for her romantic delusion. She was never annoying.
It’s just as odd to see that ultimate millennial pin-up Chalamet wearing tweeds and speaking words from the head of an old man. He’s clearly what we used to call the Allen surrogate part – see John Cusack, Will Ferrell, Jesse Eisenberg, even Ken Branagh – but it all feels out of step and out of time.
Allen used to know young people really well. Even up til, say, 2004’s Melinda and Melinda, he had a grip on their behaviour and urban pretensions but now he’s looking lost – no coincidence his better efforts recently are about characters wilfully ignoring the present, such as in Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine.
But then, suddenly, he reminds you how good a writer he can be and there’s a wonderful movie-stealing moment from Cherry Jones as Gatsby’s mother, who seems to have popped up from a different movie, one of Woody’s more serious pieces, such as September or Another Woman. It made me wish he’d return to one of those now, and make the late-period, reflective, Bergmanian masterpiece he’s so yearned for all his career.
It’s hard to know what to make of A Rainy Day in New York. I loved seeing the city and hearing the Errol Garner piano score but the burnished, heightened photography looked as if syrup had smeared the lens. I’m as partial to nostalgia as anyone, and boy do you need it here – to concoct your own Woody film in your head and remind you why he was so great.
But then, the treatment of Elle Fanning’s blonde feels so gauche and outdated – maybe it required a better actress, a Diane Keaton or a Mia Farrow, to navigate the script. But I suspect it’s not Elle’s fault. I’ve always found her an excellent performer (even finding heart and soul in Nicolas Winding Refn’s style horror The Neon Demon). Pains me to say it, what is needed was actually a better – or younger – writer and director.