“What I really need is a Berlin Ballad.”
Waiting for A Rainy Day in New York, the latest feature from Woody Allen, to reach the US film market has tested the patience of quite a few cinephiles. After the director’s deal with Amazon went south, the film saw a release (and quite a bit of success) in the majority of international markets as a stateside bow still eluded it. Now, two years after its intended unveiling, A Rainy Day in New York has come out stateside and has proven worth the wait, even if Allen naysayers may not feel so. It’s true, there’s enough elements within the breezy comedy to make it feel like the typical kind of output from the legendary director. At some point however, a different kind of Allen film emerges; one which sees the filmmaker hold on to some of his most treasured storytelling tropes and use them to tell the kind of romantic and ethereal tale that so rarely comes along.
In A Rainy Day in New York, well-to-do college student Gatsby (Timothee Chalamet) is accompanying his girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) to the city when she suddenly gets the chance to interview an acclaimed director (Liev Schreiber) for their college paper. Deciding this will be the perfect chance to show Ashleigh his hometown, Gatsby accompanies her and what was supposed to be a brief romantic escape soon turns into much, much more.
The argument that Allen essentially remakes the same film over and over again is a tired one, but is also not altogether untrue with respect to certain themes and tropes the director has clung to throughout his longtime career. Many of those familiar elements show up in A Rainy Day in New York ensuring that no one watching it will ever not think they’re seeing an Allen offering. Some of the jokes here read like classic Allen, which still prove amusing despite their vintage quality. When Ashleigh tells Gatsby that the reason she secured the assignment is because of a classmate’s bout with mono, he quips: “Mono is like a two credit course at this school.” Later, when Ashleigh is interviewing Roland Pollard (Schreiber), the unpredictable director asks her if she’d like a scoop, to which she innocently responds: “Of?” Speaking of the character of the director, it’s hard not to notice that virtually every scene featuring Roland sees him at a personal and professional crossroads which continues as the film progresses. Ashleigh’s continued reassurance that what any doubts about him and his work are simply not true can very well be Allen giving himself a pep talk as a way of coping with the struggles of sustaining such a long and closely watched career. Finally, the film’s very own premise feels right out of the director’s wheelhouse with love, comedy and the big apple all conspiring together to create a humorous and profound experience for some hapless protagonists.
In spite of all the recognizable features, A Rainy Day in New York ends up being far better than the average Allen title. For one, there’s no middle aged main character running around the city wondering why his life is so unfulfilling. Instead, Allen tells the story of a pair of youths, one more worldly than the other, but both discovering themselves in a way they really hadn’t before. Allen doesn’t write Gatsby and Ashleigh as if he knows exactly what today’s youngsters are like, but instead hones in on the universal feelings of being young, including the desire to explore and the inclination to constantly question the state of things. As for the dialogue, even if some of it feels familiar at times, there’s still enough freshness to remind audiences of Allen’s writing talents. “If my roommate was here…she’d hemorrhage,” says an astonished Ashleigh when she encounters a handsome movie star (Diego Luna). Jokes like that mostly work, but it’s when Allen is being philosophical when his writing really soars. “There’s something romantic about gamblers and old songs and meeting under a clock,” muses Chan (Selina Gomez), the younger sister of Gatsby’s ex-girlfriend. “Maybe in movies, but this is real life” is Gatsby’s retort. “Real life is fine for people who can’t do any better,” says Chan. Allen even uses his dialogue to poke fun something he’s been called out for numerous times: the younger woman/older man motif. We see the director take himself to task with lines like: “What’s so sexy about short term memory loss” and by showing all three older male characters falling for Ashleigh whose love for Gatsby means she can’t return their feelings. It may all seem trivial, but each of these points in their own way prove that Allen remains a filmmaker still present and interested.
Every older member of the cast has come to play. Besides Schreiber, and Luna there’s Jude Law as a screenwriter, Rebecca Hall as his cheating wife and Cherry Jones as Gatsby’s socialite mother. They all do good work here. But A Rainy Day in New York is a showcase for its younger actors. Gomez finally has a role which allows her to emerge as an actual actress as opposed to a pop star getting in front of the camera. Her scenes exude such a liveliness and beauty, that you wish she had more of them. Fanning is a delight through and through. Her giggles and looks of wonder don’t turn Ashleigh into an airhead, but instead bring out her curious, excitable nature and sense of genuine wonder. The actress manages this with some of the most perfect comedic timing ever to exist in a Woody Allen film while adding another skilled performance to her growing resume. As for Chalamet, his task of taking Gatsby from the level of someone you can’t stand, to someone you wanna drown your sorrows over drinks with is a great hat trick and the actor does this by reveling in the facets of his character’s aimless existence and resentment for how he was brought up in ways which feel both real and yet still contain a kind of cinematic melancholy.
There’s a scene that takes place when Gatsby accompanies Chan to her parent’s upscale apartment while it’s pouring outside. As a rain-soaked Chan changes in her room, Gatsby sits on the piano and starts to play and gently sing “Everything Happens to Me.” The scene is hands down one of the most serene in the entire film as it shows two people quietly at a crossroads in their young lives and their sudden realization of it. It’s hard to say where A Rainy Day in New York will take Allen. The film’s success has already been solidified thanks to it’s acceptance by international audiences, but the trailer for the director’s next movie, the San Sebastian-set Rifkin’s Festival, sees him venturing right back into his well-worn comfort zone. Regardless of what that movie offers Allen’s fans, A Rainy Day in New York shows a filmmaker as in love with the beauty, possibility and power of cinema as he’s always been.