Friday, July 24, 2009
New York, New York (1977)
By Eric Jessen 7/24/09
I popped in the DVD for New York, New York and up came the option, “Yes” or “No”, to first watch an introduction by Martin Scorsese. Of course I selected “Yes,” interested in what the great director had to say. In the introduction Scorsese mapped out his thoughtful and interesting plan in making New York, New York. The premise: to mesh the old style musical from the 1950's - glorious, lavish but obviously fake sets, big colorful hats, and hundreds of extras – with modern conversational, often improvised dialogue between the stars Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle and Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans. Scorsese used similar style dialogue brilliantly in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (“Are you talkin' to me?), and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Unfortunately, that meant I wasn't to expect any classic 50's musical one liners. But instead, as a consolation, the new style dialogue lends itself to more edgy scenes. When Jimmy and Francine are off stage, in the car or their bedroom, their back and forth has a chance to be more melodramatic but heartfelt, or in Robert De Niro's case, whiny, embarrassing but funny. With the modern colloquial Scorsese can more easily stick to a story in his wheel house: two odd ball lovers, talented, charming, hooligans scrounging on the streets of New York. It's a strange, somewhat counterintuitive but intriguing juxtaposition: the realism of vernacular improvisation with the pastel colored, candy-land, Stanley Donen-and-Gene Kelly-style fantasy world.
From Scorsese's description, I was very excited to watch New York, New York, curious to see if everything would fit. But after watching, I was disappointed.
My intended first sentence and initial reaction to the movie was.... “New York, New York is a glossy, perky, well funded bad idea. Pretty, snazzy but uncomfortable to watch from start to finish. The fundamental problem is in pairing Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli as the star couple.”
It's hard to tell if Scorsese's idea would have worked with different actors or with less “old style musical” or less improvisation. Scorsese showed the ability, particularly in the last 30 minutes featuring Liza on Broadway, to make a fun lively musical. We also know he can make fantastic poetic realistic movies starring De Niro. But the pieces never came together. The story is jerky, and Liza and De Niro in more ways than one don't work together.
In the first 15 minutes I was distracted by the burning question, why would he be with her? The movie-star good looks courting the ugly duckling? Then I started to think, why would she be with him? She's talented, well mannered, while he's an obnoxious bullying pest. But then my father, who was watching with me and hearing me scoff frequently said, “just get past it.” He's was right, so I did. I accepted the seemingly ludicrous terms of the movie.
De Niro and Liza, Okay. So I decided to immerse myself in their story. They meet, fall in love and get married so fast I hardly see how they got from point A to point B. I saw them together, bickering, then all of a sudden hugging, holding hands and wrestling in bed. I don't think that's how love progresses. Where are the ups and downs, the hot and heavy? They yell and scream at each other and yet they're in love.
So, the story is lax, but I was hoping Liza and De Niro would have good chemistry. Maybe they're a sweet combination like Astaire and Rogers (even though she was a little out of his league). But to my further dismay, Liza and De Niro are horrible together. The scenes when they're alone with each other are almost painful to watch. De Niro clearly overwhelms Liza in improvisation. She is put back, eh, eh, eh, about to talk, but silent. (In her defense, she actually sings and he fakes playing the saxophone.) He is overacting for the role. Someone needed to pull the reins back on his enthusiasm for being annoying. De Niro is out of place in front of the painted backgrounds of 50's style musicals.
In the end Scorsese makes his intention to go against the grain too obvious. He commits musical heresy. De Niro and Liza DON'T end up together. Their work keeps them apart, they're too afraid to talk, and that's it. The movie fades without romanticism into oblivion. Their separation is a strange unexpected twist but oddly anti-climatic. Maybe because I've been sensing the miss-match from the start.