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DVD Review: New York Stories

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I rented New York Stories on Netflix and watched it the morning before my evening flight to Paris a few weeks ago. I thought it would be a fitting end to my wonderful summer in New York City, a tribute to my time there, a period to put at the end of that particular sentence of my life story. Having watched it, however, I am comfortable in saying that this movie should never have been made.

A collaborative effort by Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, the movie is overwhelmingly uneven. The film is divided into three segments, each directed by one of the above. It all starts well with “Life Lessons,” the Scorcese segment about a successful but neurotic painter (Nick Nolte) living in SoHo, who uses his studio and the offer of “life lessons” as a means to bag young women to serve as his assistants/live-in lovers. It’s a neverending exercise in self-torture for both parties, the girl (Rosanna Arquette, in this case) kowtows to the older, wiser painter until she realizes that he’s really no more than a little boy with a paintbrush. At that point the tables are turned and he plays the fool for her until she kicks him to the curb, whereupon he washes his hands of her in a shower of tears and goes on to find the next girl. Humorously and touchingly written, fantastically and innovatively shot in a way that only Scorcese could pull off, and set to a great soundtrack, this segment gives high hopes for the rest of the film.

The next segment, Coppola’s “Life without Zoe,” however, immediately dashes those hopes to the ground. Co-written with his then 18 year-old daughter Sofia, this piece is tantamount to a cinematic Take your Daughter to Work Day. The story is about a prepubescent Upper East Side princess and simply shouldn’t have been written. Sofia was only a teenager at the time and she’s more than made up for it with Lost in Translation. Daddy should have known better.

The final piece, Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” is something of a recovery (anything would look good coming after Coppola’s piece), but in comparison to his other work, it’s disappointingly one-dimensional. A farce about overbearing Jewish mothers, this short film is the kind of self-hating Jew schlock that only encourages modern-day anti-Semitism.

It’s an interesting idea to get a few distinctly New York directors together to make a tribute to the city, each focusing on his/her own neighborhood and lifestyle, but the city and these directors are all too big to limit to just one third of a movie. Scorcese did another movie about SoHo in the 1980s called After Hours that, while of an entirely different style (his one and only comedy), does a better job of encapsulating the atmosphere of Lower Manhattan during that time. Coppola isn’t really the New York director that the other two are, but if you want to see his take on the city’s overpriveleged elite, look no further than the first two Godfather films. As for Woody Allen, you can take your pick, but for a love song to New York, go with Manhattan. For a great New York comedy, watch Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Just, whatever you do, don’t watch New York Stories.

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About Steve Jacobs

  • Yeah, the Martin Scorsese one was the best…

  • Great review Steve, I think you’re right on the money. The cinematography on Coppola’s piece was rather good if I recall, but it was the worst of a rather mediocre group of tales. Let’s face it — short stories with some kind of thematic throughline (New York in this case) don’t work very often in film or in literature.

    You’ve really inspired me, though, to think about quintessential New York films. I’m a native New Yorker (Long Island) transplanted to California, so it is great to get a NYC fix every now and again.

    Here’s my quick list:

    Quick Change – Bill Murray, Geena Davis
    Annie Hall – Best Woody flick, says I
    Mean Streets / Goodfellas – Scorcese
    Vanilla Sky – Vastly underrated flick with great New York shots

    And for TV, nothing’s better than Rescue Me.

  • Oh, I’ll add a few that really come from the boroughs:

    A Bronx Tale – DeNiro-directed gem
    Coming to America – Eddie Murphy’s last truly great film?
    Do the Right Thing – Cooking in the city of Brooklyn with Spike

    Okay, I hit Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Anybody got a Staten Island flick to round out the list?

  • Steve, dude, what is your problem? Sure, Coppola’s little film was crap, but so what — Scorsese’s was brilliant, as you note, and Allen’s was a WHOLE lot funnier than you give it credit for. So that’s 2/3 of a good movie, a better average than most and a very decent rental, if only to see Allen’s.

    It also has one of the best laughs I ever got from an Allen movie: the scene where Allen is looking for his mother and frantically asks for help from an extremely deaf neighbor, who responds: “Well, okay, if you promise to bring it back.”

    What really gets me is this statement of yours: “A farce about overbearing Jewish mothers, this short film is the kind of self-hating Jew schlock that only encourages modern-day anti-Semitism.”

    What stupid kind of bullshit is that?

    Number One, it’s patronizing. It sounds as if you’re saying: “Be a good little Jew! Go forth and represent the wonderfully rich, diverse, multi-ethnic heritage of our great country! Talk about how much you love your mama while you’re at it! Remember to make her endearing and sweet and warm and lovable!”

    Of course, this charge is nothing new; Philip Roth got hit with it when he published Goodbye, Columbus, and heard it again with Portnoy’s Complaint.

    Both writers have as much right as anyone right to dwell at length on how they are shaped by their culture, and tell the truth as they see it — even if it’s painful or sometimes cruel. It’s what writers do: face the harsh truths about themselves as they see it. Both writers were shaped by their culture and that’s what they responded to. Joyce did the same with Catholicism. Rushdie did the same with Islam.

    Number Two, How in the world does Allen’s film encourage anti-Semitism? The movie is 15 years old — did it spawn some KKK protest that I missed? What did their signs say? “Stop the Jews — Their Mothers are OverBearing”?

  • Interesting point, Rodney — I missed the bit about anti-Semitism in the original review.

    I heard Roth talking about this very issue recently on NPR, and it was very interesting stuff. He was very bold and courageous at the time in talking about families in which the father was timid, the mother overbearing, etc. which so went against societal “norms.” And, he talked a lot about sex!

  • Rodney, my point is that Woody Allen can do and has done better. I take no issue with him using Judaism – or at least his take on it – as a source/inspiration for his work. I love Woody Allen, but what I love about him is that – at least with his better works – there’s more than just the one dimension of Jewish self-mockery in his work. The same goes for Roth. In Annie Hall and Portnoy’s Complaint, they both use Judaism as a backdrop to tell a story about something else.

    In his portion of New York Stories, Allen simply mocks Jewish mothers and does nothing else. There is no other depth to the work. He simply encourages stereotypes that – to Jews such as myself – may seem familiar and amusing, but that, to anti-Semites, I fear, might only encourage more mockery (vicious, not loving) and hatred. So, sure, it was the second-best of three parts of a movie, but Allen can do better. He has done better. A lot better. And so have all the other directors involved.

  • Well, I’m not Jewish, but I just thought it was funny and not hatefully so. I think people can look at a movie like that and relate to it, Jewish or not, because it reminds them of their own mother. I’ve also heard people say they related to Portnoy’s Complaint because they grew up Catholic, interestingly enough, because they recognize the same kind of strictures.

    Allen came up in the same world as Neil Simon, with whom he worked in the 1950s, and I think their portraits of Jewish mothers are more or less on the same level.

    Can Allen do better? Sure, but this is a short piece. A short, funny piece; the only one is a fairly serious, straight-faced batch. I didn’t watch it wishing it had more depth; probably because I was laughing too hard. I also liked the fact that it took this stereotype and just pushed it as far as it could, even to the point where his Mom is weighing upon Allen like God Himself.