Woody Allen is an exceptional filmmaker, with 50 features under his belt from the past half-century. It won't come as a surprise that Allen has become a master storyteller, although his prolific workload isn't necessarily beneficial to the quality. But there has always been at least one or two gems every decade, like 2013's Cate Blanchett vehicle 'Blue Jasmine', arguably the last film he made which came close to excellence. His movies engage audiences largely thanks to the witty dialogue, fleshed-out characters, and the way he uses everyday events to create compelling narratives.
Common tropes found in Allen's films are also present in his latest work, 'A Rainy Day in New York': love affairs, searching for the meaning of life, an artist expressing his world view and family dynamics. Once again, the director assembled a marvellous cast to ignite that essential spark commonly found in his distinctive brand of storytelling.
Then #MeToo happened. Amidst a resurgence in sexual assault allegations, Amazon Studios' decided to drop out of a multi-film deal with Allen and stop the distribution of 'A Rainy Day in New York'. His unbelievable annual movie streak - maintained for almost 40 years - was brought to an unceremonious halt. Several of the film's stars (including Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Hall and Griffin Newman) publicly distanced themselves from the film, and the majority of the main cast donated their salaries to charity.
So, if you weren't sure why 'A Rainy Day in New York' never appeared in Australian cinemas, then wonder no more! However, it has now been released on digital, so it's worth some examination.
Gatsby Wells (Timothée Chalamet, 'Call Me By Your Name', 'Little Women') and Ashleigh (Elle Fanning, 'Galveston', 'Mary Shelley') are a young couple who travel to Manhattan so that Ashleigh can interview a famous movie director, Roland Pollard (Liev Schrieber, 'Spotlight', 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse').
Gatsby sees it as a perfect opportunity to show his Arizona beauty queen the culture and romance of the Big Apple, but soon finds himself at a loose end as Ashleigh gets waylaid first by the director, then the writer Ted Davidoff (Jude Law, 'Captain Marvel') and finally the actor Francisco Vega (Diego Luna, 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'). Gatsby is left to wander, chat with friends and question his relationships. He bumps into an old acquaintance Chan (Selena Gomez, 'The Dead Don't Die'), and a romance sparks even as the clouds gather overhead.
Elle Fanning makes a game fist at putting some warmth and verve into an unforgiving "dumb blonde" caricature that sees her stripped down to her undies and cast out into the street.
In the most memorable (for positive reasons) scene, Chalamet sits down by a piano and sings a song. He could have played a cool pop-song, but instead, its light jazz. It's a classic Woody Allen moment. In fact, Gatsby feels like a character Woody would have played when he was younger, and Chalamet echoes Allen in his delivery of dialogue and his scarecrow-like movements. But I felt myself wishing for something more unique from Chalamet's performance, and not merely a mirror image of an old man's tics and neuroses.
The problems with his performance are emblematic of the film as a whole. When it comes down to it, 'A Rainy Day in New York' is your typical late period Allen: visually bland (despite being lensed by master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro), narratively flabby, and entirely unremarkable. There are a few solid laughs, mostly thanks to Selena Gomez, who overcomes her thin character with a lot of charisma. 84-year-old Allen's directorial focus is on young people and, as you can imagine, the depiction of millennial anxiety is entirely tone deaf, with plenty of groanworthy iPhone mishaps and text message exchanges.
Two things really bothered me. Firstly, Allen famously gives his performers little or no guidance and tries to complete every scene in as few takes as possible, but there were several scenes that needed more takes due to some fumbled line delivery. Secondly, Elle Fanning makes a game fist at putting some warmth and verve into an unforgiving "dumb blonde" caricature that sees her stripped down to her undies and cast out into the street. It's a career-worst role from someone I didn't realise was capable of turning in a bad performance, even in films as disastrous as Ben Affleck's 'Live By Night'.
'A Rainy Day in New York' is a distant echo of Allen's masterpieces: those anarchic early films and his more introspective works of the eighties, which had serious themes but also loads of humour. It's yet another neurotic comedy-drama about an anxious hero in an over-sized tweed jacket who adores jazz tunes and black-and-white movies, with no discernible point except to display some of Manhattan's swankiest apartments and hotel bars.