The “Cities of Love” franchise begun with “Paris, je t’aime” discards originality for uniformity in its disappointing second installment, “New York, I Love You.” Ten helmers were given a formula for shooting a Gotham-based love story: Lensing had to last no more than two days and editing just one week, connected by transitions shot by one more director. The results are, well, formulaic, hobbled by weak dialogue and absent any sense of texture. The city itself comes off characterless and blandly gentrified, making the Oct. 16 Vivendi Entertainment release unlikely to catch on with targeted romantic arthouse sophisticates.
Whether it can appeal to the multiplex set will depend entirely on marketers pulling in crowds who don’t see much difference between Las Vegas’ “New York New York” and the real thing. In particular, Gothamites will wonder what happened to their city, devoid of grit, and where African-Americans are mere extras and Hispanics apparently nonexistent. Producer Emmanuel Benbihy (who also produced “Paris, je t’aime” and is credited with the feature-film concept here) presumably favored quick turnarounds because they’re cheaper and foster an off-the-cuff urgency, but the talented directors assembled here seem to have felt uninspired or apathetic.
Segments last around eight minutes each, and none are titled, in keeping with Benbihy’s stated goal of avoiding the sense of a collection of shorts. Despite the push for giving it all a feature feel (Scarlett Johansson’s directorial debut, shot in black-and-white, was cut because it didn’t conform to the overall look), there’s no getting around the fact that this is indeed a collection of shorts, which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing if the components were more incisive.
Some segments do hold up nicely: Mira Nair’s entry stars Natalie Portman as a Chassidic woman in the Diamond District whose strictly business relationship with a Jain gem merchant (Irrfan Khan) takes a surprising turn. While several of the films deal with cross-cultural meetings and clashes, Nair avoids the expected and invests her entry with real emotional tenderness.
Completely different, and working well because of it, is Brett Ratner’s segment about a high schooler (Anton Yelchin) suckered by a pharmacist (James Caan) into taking his wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) to the prom. Again, expectation is upended, and there’s a piquant sense of humor to the piece, though the voiceover is unnecessary.
Unanticipated relationships similarly inform the episodes directed by Jiang Wen and Yvan Attal, but they lack the tight punchiness needed for such quick work. In Jiang’s piece, thief Hayden Christensen pickpockets Andy Garcia, only to fall for Garcia’s mistress (Rachel Bilson). Attal’s entry consists of two encounters, one involving fast-talker Ethan Hawke trying to pick up a coolly amused Maggie Q (one of the few thesps to make an impression), the other featuring an intense come-on between Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn.
Orlando Bloom is a musician on a tight deadline in Shunji Iwai’s segment, an OK entry made pleasant by the enticingly sweet voice of Christina Ricci as the largely unseen woman encouraging him on the phone. Darkest of the shorts is Allen Hughes’ entry, starring Drea De Matteo as a woman trying to understand why she had a one-night stand with a younger guy (Bradley Cooper), and why she wants to see him again. De Matteo rises above the material, though the flashback sex scene feels gratuitous rather than urgent.
Portman directs a wispy short about a little girl (Taylor Geare) whose male nanny (Carlos Acosta) is uncomfortable being seen as merely a child-care provider. More substantial is Fatih Akin’s piece, starring Turkish thesp Ugur Yucel as an artist obsessed with a woman (Shu Qi, so it’s understandable) in Chinatown. Though the segment works, it feels cut out from something bigger, and as with all the other shorts, even Akin’s corner of Gotham has no extratextual role.
Oddest of all is the short helmed by Shekhar Kapur, who took over for the late Anthony Minghella (who scripted the episode, and to whom the entire pic is dedicated). Julie Christie plays an opera singer who checks into an elegant hotel (shot as if it’s somewhere in heaven) to kill herself. She’s intrigued by a handicapped bellboy (Shia LaBeouf, his accent slipping into unknown regions) who magically becomes associated with John Hurt. Meant to convey feelings of wistfulness and yearning, the piece merely feels ill thought-out, despite Christie’s best efforts.
The sole short not set in Manhattan belongs to Joshua Marston, who sets Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman on Coney Island; their standard old-couple shtick is redeemed by the sheer pleasure of watching these two pros radiate more personality than the dialogue provides.
It’s too much to expect the kind of New Yorkese wit spouted by Woody Allen characters in their prime, and Benbihy’s decision to hire non-Gotham helmers could have been a bold move, but the compendium’s greatest flaw is its overall homogeneous feel. Emilie Ohana, cast as a video artist casually shooting the life around her, is meant to be the connecting feature in the transitional scenes (helmed by Randy Balsmeyer), but she’s simply an empty, smiling shell, sweetly observing but never entering into the life of the film.
Perhaps because of the time constraints, tech creds are solid but featureless; lighting is especially uninspired. Music is meant to reflect the Big Apple’s multicultural mix, but none of it feels like New York.