Armed with a collection of the world's notable directors, Paris je t'aime hit screens with a good deal of impact and buzz. It was to be the first piece in producer Emmanuel Benbihy's "Cities of Love," a collection of films detailing romance and metropolitan life across the globe, a series planning to travel to the likes of New York, Rio, Shanghai, Jerusalem, and Mumbai.
Three years later, the second installment is finally upon us with New York, I Love You. With only minor changes, the film continues the tradition of joining many internationally diverse filmmakers for the journey through a popular city, but the buzz has diminished. The film is slowly making its way across screens in the U.S., and will break into Canada come November 27. But how could one of Hollywood's most beloved cities find its ode so woefully under the radar? It's not an easy question to answer because while New York, I Love You might be flawed, it's also sweet, engaging, and nicely representative of that small island cluttered with millions of people.
With New York, I Love You Benbihy created a strict list of rules for the film. Each director had 2 days to shoot an 8-minute segment, about a romantic encounter, in a visually identifiable New York neighborhood. Once finished, they had 7 days to edit the footage into a short. The shorts couldn't fade to black because each would be mixed together with transitions (aptly directed by Randy Balsmeyer) to make each vignette connected to the rest of the pieces. As Benbihy describes it, New York, I Love You is "collective filmmaking" that's "absolutely not an anthology." But, really, it is.
Unlike Paris je t'aime, which opened each autonomous segment with the name of the director and title of the piece, the small transitions between New York, I Love You's vignettes make each piece part of a great whole, yes, but they still remain singular looks into metropolitan life. They tease at the myriad of stories hidden within the city, while also tapping into that notion that in some way, whether big or small, we're all interconnected.
The film kicks off with an inter-story transition between Bradley Cooper and Andy Garcia, both hopping into a cab at the same time and agreeing to share the ride. From there, New York, I Love You spirals into a number of diverse stories that continue to cross paths. For the most part, this works smoothly. Whether the short is wonderfully spot-on or lacking, the feel and tone is similar enough that the flow from story to story seems natural. Natalie Portman takes a noble and charming stab at directing with her piece that challenges one's immediate assumptions on race and family, while others dance in and out of themes, whether dealing with the pitch-perfect comedy of an old couple celebrating their anniversary amongst the hustle and bustle of modern day (Joshua Marston directing Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman in "Brighton Beach") or the chilling calm of a former opera singer and her helpful bellhop (Shekhar Kapur directing a surprisingly adept Shia LaBeouf and Julie Christie in Anthony Minghella's "On The Upper East Side").
But there is one glaring addition: Brett Ratner's take on Central Park. It might seem easy to knock the director, who definitely stands out alongside his fellow participants, but unfortunately, it's not because it's a bad film. In fact, his piece is a fun, bright look at a prom outing between Anton Yelchin and Olivia Thirlby. However, it sticks out like a candy-filled sore thumb, Yelchin's bubbly voiceover ripping you out of the careful pace that seems pre-determined by the rest of the directors. The voiceover technique worked in Paris je t'aime when we were made to follow an American tourist and her rocky French accent, but here, it is unnecessary. In retrospect, this inclusion also makes it more unfortunate that Ratner's offering lived while Scarlett Johansson's piece was cut. (According to EW, her piece did not fit in with the rest of the film.)
Some pieces do falter. Just when Mira Nair's directed encounter between Irfan Khan's jeweler and Natalie Portman's Hassid bride finally taps into something charmingly personal, it is over. When Andy Garcia plays the slimy and powerful older paramour trying to turn Hayden Christiansen's young thief into a fool in Wen Jiang's segment, it seems more cliche than genuine. However, there are also moments that are not only beautiful and engaging, but also thought-provoking and lingering. Most notably -- Yvan Attal's matching segments about what happens when strangers meet while smoking outside a restaurant. Each delves into shockingly straightforward and scandalous flirtations with a stranger that never seem simply perverted or inappropriate. Attal rips open interpersonal dynamics as he looks into the ease of revealing yourself to a stranger, while also perfectly tapping into the actor's strengths -- especially when Ethan Hawke attempts to seduce Maggie Q with raunchy word play, a scene reminiscent of Hawke's work with Richard Linklater.
Perhaps the film's struggle can be blamed on the decision to work mainly with newer directors. Save Anthony Minghella, who passed away before he could film his segment, Portman and Ratner are the only recognizable names to lure in mainstream moviegoers, whereas Paris je t'aime intermingled less recognizable names with the likes of Gus Van Sant, Alexander Payne, Wes Craven, and the Coen Brothers.
Nevertheless, as the good and mediocre shorts made their way across the screen, and as fresh as most of these directors are, I found myself back in New York City when I watched it, each clip bringing Gotham alive in my mind. New York isn't situated as a city of extreme wealth, crime, or corruption -- not even extreme romance. New York, I Love You allows the city to exist in its flaws and fine features, tapping into many slices of life and revealing slices of Manhattan life we don't often have the chance to see.