In one memorable episode of The Sopranos, Junior (Bronx native Domenic Chianese) counsels his nephew Tony against performing cunnilingus on his mistresses, because the act is submissive to the female. Lenny, the sad-sack character played by Chianese in The Last New Yorker, does not go down on the elegant Mimi (Kathleen Chalfant), but reveals an uncomfortable and impulsive vulnerability that any woman would immediately see as a sign of acute psychological issues. Screenwriter Adam Forgash, who like director Harvey Wang, is a fine still photographer, wrote the kind of dizzy, bumbling, and borderline stalking rom-com character that is patronizing to the Sandra Bullocks and Reese Witherspoons who typically get cast in such roles. But to see a man in the autumn of his years in such an undignified role is even more painful – and all the more so that the man is Uncle Junior.
The canvas against which this Golden Years rom-com is clumsily painted is where the real story lives. For these characters, when they are allowed their dignity, lament the slow death of the city they grew up in, now almost unrecognizable in the face of a gentrification that some would call the Sexandthecityfication of New York. Among the DVD extras are photo galleries from photographer/director Harvey Wang’s documentation of the old school businessmen and shops of New York. These black and white images are stately, fascinating portraits, full of humanity and with an fatalistic sense of the passage of time. Legendary portrait photographer August Sander, who documented the German working class, would be proud. A series of interviews with the people documented in Wang’s photos would have made a wonderful feature about a rapidly changing metropolis.
There is one sequence in the film that approaches poetry, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that it is wordless: a brief transitional sequence weaves together images of New York commuters, walking across busy streets in the kind of urban ballet that Jane Jacobs wrote of in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. For all I know these shots are B-roll. But these moments, along with the sights of vanishing New York like M. Gordon Novelty (a fading sign that has since been taken down) and the still-operating Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop across the street, are among the most honest in the film. Stop by Eisenberg’s for a pastrami sandwich and an egg cream, and imagine the movie this might have been.