On the way home from a screening of New York, I Love You, I made my daily descent into New York's subway and sat down on a bench to read a book while waiting for the train. Across the platform, I could hear a busker strumming a guitar and singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (And he wasn’t bad.) Next to me, a man struggled to simultaneously make a serious work-related phone call and keep his tiny dog from escaping toward the tracks. These weren’t remarkable moments, really, but they were the kind of daily details that make New York the dirty, bustling, hopeful, intense, and – above all else – fiercely individual place that it has always been.
There are far too few moments like that in New York, I Love You, the second in producer Emmanuel Benbihy’s series of “collective features” that celebrate love set against the backdrop of the world’s great cities. Paris, je t’aime, the first of the films to hit theaters, assembled an almost unbelievably impressive set of talented directors: Olivier Assayas, Sylvain Chomet, Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Christopher Doyle, and Tom Tykwer were only a handful of the superstar filmmakers to contribute. What resulted was a rich patchwork of diverse characters, genres, and experiences. As with any collection of short films, some were far stronger than others. But I left Paris, je t’aime wholly satisfied that the majority of these very different directors had tackled the done-to-death subject of romance in Paris without resorting to cliché.
New York, I Love You isn’t nearly as conscientious or subtle – and perhaps that has something to do with the noticeably weaker list of directors who signed on to the project. Sure, there’s Mira Nair (The Namesake), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, X-Men: The Last Stand), Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace), and Shunji Iwai (All About Lily Chou-Chou). But who is Yvan Attal? (As it turns out, he’s Charlotte Gainsbourg’s husband.) And was this really the venue for manic pixie dream girl Natalie Portman’s directorial debut? Even the biggest names in New York, I Love You’s credits pale in comparison to the international cinematic masters who collaborated on its forerunner. Was it that difficult for Benbihy to find a more worthy group to commit a few minutes of Big Apple love to celluloid?
Even some of the more established contributors falter. I had been looking forward to Nair’s segment, written by Suketu Mehta, a talented journalist whose recent work has focused on immigrants’ experiences in New York. But the short, which features an unlikely encounter between an Indian diamond seller (Irrfan Khan) and a Hasidic broker (Portman) lapses into familiar cross-cultural territory. The Jain and the Jew talk about their respective dietary restrictions, and the broker reveals that she’s wearing a wig, having been forced to shave her head in preparation for her upcoming wedding. They share a tender moment, undermined slightly by Portman’s incompetent Brooklyn-Hasidic accent, but guess what? She still gets married, albeit with a faraway look in her eyes.
Most of the shorts suffer from similarly hackneyed story lines, with all action leading up to a pat resolution. In Attal’s segment, a shaggy writer (Ethan Hawke, in a role so typecast it verges on self-parody) approaches a beautiful, sophisticated Asian-American woman (Maggie Q). She attempts to deflect his advances, but he becomes ever more insistent, going so far as to assume she’s never had an orgasm and describe, in detail, how he intends to give her one. But it looks like the joke’s on Hawke, because the object of his affection is a call girl; she leaves him with her card and advises him on the best times to call. Another short, directed by Faith Akin (Soul Kitchen), follows a rotund, aging painter (Ugur Yucel) who becomes fascinated with his young Chinese herbalist (Shu Qi). He asks to paint her picture, but she refuses. By the time she changes her mind and rushes to his studio to tell him, he has dropped dead. Perhaps the most insultingly obvious “gotcha” ending comes from Portman, whose film shows an afternoon in the life of a little white girl and a black man who onlookers assume is her “manny.” Well, viewers, Portman sure shames us for our racial prejudices: The man, it turns out, is her father.
Still, there are a few great contributions. Amid a sea of self-serious interludes, Ratner provides a much-needed respite, with a cartoonish tale of a just-dumped high schooler (Anton Yelchin) who scores a last-minute prom date with his pharmacist’s (James Caan) hot daughter (Olivia Thirlby). Only problem? She’s in a wheelchair. Tense dialogue and awkward sexual hijinks ensue. Wisely, Benbihy ends with Marston’s wistful slice of life. What begins as a conversation between a stereotypical, bickering, old Jewish couple in Brighton Beach slowly evolves into a meditation on lifelong love. We meet the characters on the 63rd anniversary, and when Abe (Eli Wallach) struggles to cross the street, Mitzie (Cloris Leachman) nearly begins to cry, so paralyzed is she with the fear that he may not make it.
It’s unfortunate that Benbihy may have used up the best of his talent pool on the first feature in what is to be an extensive series, with Rio, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Jerusalem editions already in development. (One can’t help but wonder: Can we expect to be subjected to Akron, You’re Not Half Bad or Gee, San Antonio, It Sure Is Hot Here a couple decades down the road?) The “Cities We Love” series, as it’s been dubbed, could be growing into a franchise – and that’s a shame, when it seems clear Benbihy would be better off emphasizing quality over quantity.