More than two years after it was made, Woody Allen’s film A Rainy Day in New York, which Amazon spent $25 million to produce, still has not been distributed in the United States after Amazon canceled its deal with Allen. In Europe the film came and went last year, and this month it became available on DVD from overseas merchants. So I bought a copy from Amazon.fr for about $25. (European DVDs, which are coded as Region 2, will not work on standard U.S. DVD players, which are coded Region 1, but all-region DVD players are available from certain retailers.)
A Rainy Day in New York is among a trio of films by major talents that sit in limbo in this country, having become sexual samizdat; the others are Roman Polanksi’s An Officer and a Spy, which was released last year in Europe and won three awards at the French Oscars, and Louis C.K.’s stinging 2017 comedy-drama I Love You Daddy. After Amazon pulled the plug on Rainy Day, last year was the first since 1981 not to see the release of a new Allen film, but he settled out of court with Amazon and has already moved on to shoot another film, Rifkin’s Festival, which awaits release. Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing was this month announced, then canceled, by the publisher Hachette USA, then surprise-published this week by a small New York firm. Amazon appears prepared to retail the book, by the way, which deals extensively with the outcry against him. Curious.
Although Allen is no longer in his prime as an artist, I’ve seen all of his movies and I wasn’t about to miss A Rainy Day in New York despite the damage done to his reputation in 2017, when he got singed in the wildfire started in a burn-the-witches spell of hysteria. Allen became persona non grata thanks to the resurfacing of a discredited and almost certainly false allegation that he sexually abused his then-seven-year-old daughter in 1992.
I can’t fathom why Rainy Day, alone among the dozens of films Allen has made since 1992, should be suppressed in this country, but that is not to say it’s a strong effort. Unfortunately, it continues his string of mediocre-to-poor films. The last Allen film I really admired was Vicky Cristina Barcelona, way back in 2008. The most egregious error this time is in casting. Allen has a habit of building his films around whatever young actors are hot, regardless of whether they are able stewards of his words (Jason Biggs in 2009’s Whatever Works, Ellen Page in 2012’s To Rome with Love). The latest performer to face-plant is the young New Yorker Timothée Chalamet (who after making this film disavowed Allen). Chalamet plays a roguish rich kid from Manhattan who scoffs at the upper classes from which he sprang. His name is “Gatsby Welles,” which is the first of many clunky elements about him.
Gatsby is less a Fitzgerald creation than a Salinger one, but in place of the soul-searching and despair of Holden Caulfield (who is mentioned in the first line of Allen’s new memoir) he exudes only shallow smugness. His jaded, wise-beyond-his-years one-liners might have proved amusing when read by another actor, or even by Allen himself in his younger days, but as it is, Chalamet strangles every trace of life out of the script and comes across as an obnoxious spoiled narcissist rather than a lovable cynic. When he denounces the bepearled cronies of his mother (Cherry Jones) as “a farrago of WASP plutocrats,” the words sound utterly alien to him, as though he were a tourist reading from a phrasebook in a language he doesn’t understand.
Like every other young person in the movie — people in their early twenties drop references to Grace Kelly, Sky Masterson, Yasir Arafat, and going to medical school in Grenada — Gatsby talks an awful lot like an 84-year-old comedy writer, and his ideal weekend turns on joining the mummified habitués of the Pierre and Carlyle Hotels, where a college student would feel about as welcome as Allen would at Coachella. Allen writes his scripts on a typewriter, is a stranger to the Internet, and it seems fair to say that his stock of references could use a bit of freshening.
As in many previous Allen comedies, this one turns on a sudden magical transformation, in this case when the first drops of rain on a Saturday afternoon in Manhattan turn the concrete canyons into something like the Fairyland of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gatsby, a swaggering chancer riding high on $20,000 in poker winnings, intends to wow his naïve Tucson-reared college girlfriend (Elle Fanning) with a lavish weekend in the city, where he has brought her from their upstate campus so that she can interview a famous film director (Liev Schreiber) for her college paper. She gets caught up in the dramas of the director, who is having a career crisis; his equally distraught screenwriter (Jude Law), who while she watches catches his wife (Rebecca Hall) cheating on him; and a superstar actor (Diego Luna) who immediately sets about seducing her. Meanwhile, Gatsby, in a contrivance worthy of Shakespeare’s fairies, runs into a student filmmaker he knows and before long is acting in a movie in which he is asked to kiss the sly little sister (Selena Gomez) of an ex-girlfriend he knew in high school. Most of the movie takes place in a giddy array of spectacular apartments that amount to centerfolds in the architecture-porn magazines.
Continuing a long tradition of actresses doing some of their best work in Allen’s movies, Fanning and Gomez provide the best moments of the movie, each of them charming in a different way. Fanning’s Ashleigh, a rube from the land of beef jerky and rodeos, has a wonderful scene in which she gets tipsy on red wine and talks herself through the idea of upgrading her romantic life from Gatsby to the famous actor she just met. Gomez isn’t who I would cast as an acerbic New Yorker, but she plays the part of Chan expertly, issuing sly digs at the absent Ashleigh that are exactly the recommended way to flirt with a fellow New York provincial who shares her automatic disdain for all things out there in the wilderness beyond the Hudson.
Allen writes his films at a notoriously fast speed, and Rainy Day is yet another effort that seems rushed, like a first draft. It would have benefited mightily from firing Chalamet, then reworking his part into someone either funnier or more likable, and also beefing up Gomez’s character. Moreover, Allen could certainly use a younger collaborator to help drag his store of references into the 21st century. Ah, well, Allen famously avoids watching his films after he finishes them, and he’s probably already forgotten this trifle. Here’s hoping he put more effort into his memoir.