“Autumn in New York” is not a bad picture, just utterly banal. Desperately eager to register as a love affair in the mold of Hollywood’s classics, Joan Chen’s tediously sappy romantic meller is a kind of modern-day “Love Story,” with a “new” twist: The casting of Richard Gere as a suave lover old enough to be Winona Ryder’s father. MGM release, which went into theaters without a press screening, should enjoy a decent opening due to an aggressive marketing campaign targeted at young susceptible femmes, but tearjerker should be out of sight long before the season in which its pedestrian story is set.
It may be coincidental, but, in theme and characters, Allison Burnett’s script recalls Bonnie Hunt’s ‘Return to Me,” another mediocre and schmaltzy romance that MGM released earlier in the spring. Protagonists of both pics are young, attractive and ailing women (Minnie Driver in the first), living with their grandparents (paternal in Hunt’s pic, maternal in new one) who, despite their better judgment, fall head over heels in love.
Yarn begins by establishing Will Keane (Gere) as a restauranteur-celeb whose sexual exploits and lucrative institution have placed him on the cover of New York magazine. Walking around his place with an aura of cocky arrogance (Gere’s onscreen specialty for quarter of a century), Will can’t help but notice the shy honoree of a birthday party, Charlotte Fielding (Ryder), who’s surrounded with her friends. A few meaningful looks are exchanged and, bingo, they become intrigued with each other.
When Dolly (Elaine Stritch), Charlotte’s toughly acerbic grandma, arrives at the chic eatery, it turns out that she knows Will from the days he dated her daughter, Charlotte’s mom who’s now deceased. Scripter arranges for a cute — though unoriginal — trick for the duo to go out together, when Will asks Charlotte to design a hat for what turns out to be a non-existent date, then to wear it herself.
Meller’s chief concession to the zeitgeist is its explicit acknowledgment of the lovers’ age-difference: Will claims to be 48, and Charlotte, 22. In actuality, both stars are older than their fictional characters, facts that shouldn’t matter in such a concoction, but somehow indicate the fake and facile nature of the entire proceedings.
At least half of the dialogue — and jokes — are about Will’s advanced age and history as a playboy, a master of the no-commitment seduction. At first, Will indulges his interest in Charlotte, expecting yet another quick and easy fling. But, gradually, he realizes that Charlotte is more emotionally mature and intellectually savvy that she appears to be — Charlotte cites Emily Dickinson’s poems, which he mistakes for Woody Allen’s one-liners.
The dates, which are not particularly erotic due to routine staging and also weak chemistry between Gere and Ryder, serve mostly as platforms to propagate differing philosophies and intergenerational clashes. “I’m too old for you,” Will says, time and again, to which Charlotte replies, “I specialize in antiques.” The dialogue seldom goes beyond this level of “edginess” and “sophistication.”
During Hollywood’s heyday, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, to name a few, played opposite sexually alluring women (Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) who were half their age, but they didn’t find the need to be defensive or apologetic about it because they were sure about what they could offer their femmes. In this pic, however, conventions are changed and Will Keane (Cooper’s name in “High Noon” was Will Kane) is made to be an irresponsible playboy who needs to grow up, and who better to facilitate his maturation than a young woman who has limited time to live.
In the process, Will is also forced to acknowledge the existence of his child, Lisa (Vera Farmiga), now a married and pregnant woman, who has taken the initiative to look for him. Whether intended or not, it’s impossible to watch Will’s transformation — his repentance of incessant womanizing — without realizing the allusions to what has become President Clinton’s obsessive urge for atonement and forgiveness not just from his family but from the public at large.
Saccarin script is replete with movieish asides, beginning with Ryder’s name, Charlotte, which recalls Bette Davis’ famous heroine in “Now, Voyager.” (Davis played a similar role to Ryder’s in the 1939 meller, “Dark Victory.”) Secondary characters are all familiar types, such as Will’s friends (Anthony LaPaglia and Sherry Stringfield), who here play similar roles to those embodied by Bonnie Hunt and James Belushi in “Return to Me.” Sporadically, “Autumn in New York” comes to life, as in a sharply observed and heartfelt scene in which the suffering Charlotte charges at her grandmother, “You’re my family, you’re supposed to teach me, take care of me.”
Thirty years ago, the preppie romance, “Love Story” was considered to be too simplistic and cute — “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” But that 1970 sleeper at least acknowledged its lovers’ class differences (rich kid-rebel falls for a baker’s daughter), and its Harvard milieu was a bit more authentic than this pic’s. Though set in New York, Chen’s movie makes only a limited use of the city’s glorious outdoor locations, such as Central Park. Rather peculiarly, “Autumn in New York” also fails to exploit its other obvious locale, a modish restaurant: There are no enticing food-preparation acts, and sequences in the kitchen are poorly directed.
Chen, who made an interesting, Spirit Award-nominated, debut with “The Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl,” a mythic fable that was decidedly unsentimental, here disappointingly goes for the most obvious approach, which accentuates the tale’s predictable course. Gere, who could have played his role in his sleep, and Ryder, look appealing in Carol Oditz’s haut couture. Stars and rest of the able cast do their best to modernize what’s essentially an extremely old-fashioned May-December romance, but they are defeated by a mundane narrative.
Tech credits are proficient across the board, except for Gabriel Yared’s score, which is like a hot chocolate syrup poured on a none-too-fresh vanilla ice cream.