By Preston Wilder
Happy birthday to Woody Allen, who turned 84 on Sunday – and, for the first time since 1981, didn’t make a film this year, having been too busy suing Amazon Studios over the non-release of A Rainy Day in New York, made in 2018 but only coming out now (and not in the US, where the director’s career has been blighted by a sexual-abuse allegation dating back to the 90s). Is the film any good? Like a lot of late Woody – and in fact more than most – it takes an audience through approximately six stages, analogous to Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: disbelief, impatience, embarrassment, indulgence, grudging amusement, then outright affection.
Disbelief and impatience come early. Easy to see why Amazon got cold feet about releasing the movie, since (a) it’s Allen’s lightest, most out-and-out comedy since To Rome With Love seven years ago, and (b) its protagonists are very young, a college kid named Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet) and his girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) – who, as scripted by the octogenarian Woody, are the least convincing youngsters ever to claim acquaintance with the year 2019 (2018, whatever). They wear wristwatches, worry about their health, seem unfamiliar with social media – “These goddam cellphones!” says Gatsby, sounding like a senior citizen trying to get to grips with technology – and make constant reference to popular culture of their grandparents’ generation. “In his dreams, he’d like to be Sky Masterson,” says Ashleigh of Gatsby, meaning the gambler from Guys and Dolls – and meanwhile the script is busy throwing down one-liners which are meant to sizzle but barely even smoulder, thus e.g. this pithy putdown of rich housewives’ literary salons: “The out-of-work discussing the out-of-print!”. Um… zing?
This kind of stuff needs a lot of audience goodwill, which is what Woody lacks at the moment; it should feel endearing, the dated ramblings of a favourite uncle, and he’s no-one’s favourite uncle right now. A Rainy Day in New York is a hard sell, and indeed it begins to get embarrassing. Who are these privileged twits? Doesn’t Woody Allen get out of the house anymore? Nobody talks like this! But then, bit by bit, embarrassment shades into indulgence. The film, after all, is a fairytale, a tale of two kids who venture to the big city and get involved with movie stars and high-class escorts. It’s not just the leads, everyone sounds implausible (Gatsby’s pal compares a girl to Yasser Arafat). There’s even a rather sweet musical interlude, the film pausing so our tousled hero can sit down at the piano and sing a wistful version of ‘Everything Happens to Me’.
Rainy Day becomes quite relaxing. More than that, as the couple get separated and Ashleigh starts to pal around with neurotic creative types, it becomes quite amusing. Say what you like about Woody, but he has a magic touch when it comes to actresses; he relaxes them, gives them licence to be silly. I’d lost faith in Fanning after her glum performance in Teen Spirit, more or less dismissing her as a precocious child star grown sullen and one-dimensional – but she unfolds a gift for comedy here, and it’s captivating. The character is a bit of a ditz (and treated badly at the very end), but played with unguarded energy – then Ashleigh gets drunk and Fanning launches into a killer Woody Allen impression, with the logorrhea and fluttery body language. Gatsby’s just a boy, she says dismissively; “He’s a mere youth,” she adds, over-enunciating like Woody used to do – sorry, I should not “imbibe so copiously”. It’s pretty funny.
The film isn’t much, cinematically speaking. Allen’s directed 54 films but never really cared about using the camera – and, though he works with top cinematographers, Vittorio Storaro’s trademark fiery-orange lighting doesn’t really fit this airy comedy (Fanning sometimes looks like she might be about to burst into flames). Haters will find lots to hate, from stray lines with awkward real-life resonance – “What is it about older guys that’s so appealing to women?” – to the arguably shabby treatment of female characters (one has hiccups, another gets saddled with an ugly laugh), to the simple fact that the film is lazily written, making no effort to create believable characters.
A Rainy Day in New York also lacks the mordant philosophical edge that’s been the one upside of Woody getting older, above all in the hauntingly desolate endings of Blue Jasmine and Café Society. But it has something else, something “fabulously escapist” as Gatsby puts it – speaking, of course, of old movies – a vibe both bubbly and bubble-like. In the end, it evokes affection for this veteran artist, with his hang-ups and his love of New York, “his town” like Isaac said in Manhattan. “I don’t know why it means so much to me,” shrugs Gatsby, “but it means everything”. You gotta love it.
DIRECTED BY Woody Allen
STARRING Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez
US 2019 92 mins