If there was justice in the U.S. Postal system, I would have had this review up on Sunday. New York, New York is a celebration of all things Gotham. Take any frame from the film and you would have a great poster to hang up in Time’s Square and allow the citizens of that fabled wondrous city something else to gloat about. So see it if you really want to feel good about the city that birthed it. But don’t watch it if you have a great desire to see another Scorsese masterpiece.
The film, at the time of its release, was a huge bomb that damaged Scorsese’s credibility, much in the same way that One From the Heart killed Coppola’s career. Scorsese was able to bounce back far more quickly (his next fictional film was the classic Raging Bull) but this love letter still seems so odd that it is difficult to understand it properly. Scorsese is usually focused on the downside of urban life. But this positive, happy dream of a film seemed so jarring following Taxi Driver that most are still not sure what to make of it. It’s a Scorsese film that stars Liza Minelli. There is probably a look of shock now firmly attached to your face after reading that last sentence.
Well, that is pretty much all you need to know. This is a Martin Scorsese film that stars Liza Minelli. It also focuses so much on the glitz and glamor that Scorsese has spent his career trying to avoid. Granted, he borrowed some of the ideas presented here for Goodfellas and The Aviator, but those scenes had a point in that they were there to build up a man and then contrast them with a downward spiral into drugs or madness. This film is obsessed with being a studio film from the 1930s; a Hollywood romance with no trace of irony. It’s perhaps the weirdest thing that Martin Scorsese has ever made. New York, New York does work on its surface, I suppose. But the film ultimately has no endgame and never even tries for the depth of other works.
The film takes place shortly after V-J Day (quite a few passerby step on a newspaper with the headline “Japs Give Up”) and involves a saxophonist named Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) meeting a small time singer dressed like the lost Andrews Sister (that’s Minelli). Francine (Minelli) hates Jimmy and wants him to go away. But fate intervenes; they eventually share a taxi and go to an audition together, where a producer feels that they have talent enough to work together. From this, they start a romance, but complications abound and Jimmy walks out on Francine. They end up finding success, but constantly strive for each other and live in each other’s shadows.
Go back and reread that plot. Does that sound like something 1970s Scorsese would have directed? No, it sounds like a studio picture that would have been released the same week as the actual V-J day. That is where the disconnect is. It is no secret that Scorsese has a love of old-fashioned Hollywood, and is one of the foremost experts on film preservation. But that does not necessarily mean he understood why those films worked. They were escapism for a violent time. This worked in the forties, but not in the seventies. Audiences wanted films like Taxi Driver to justify their increasing despair. To some jilted fans, this was an even greater betrayal than anything Nixon ever did.
Of course, all would be forgiven if this was a film worthy of comparison to his other masterpieces, but it is not. Why? Because the main characters are low watt bulbs that have about as much depth as Fred Astaire ever did when he acted. Actually, Jimmy is probably the most loathsome character Scorsese has ever conceived, and that includes all of the mass murderers. Jimmy seems to be as much in a fantasy world as any other and does not know how to treat human beings. The “wedding scene” (in which Jimmy takes Francine to a judge’s house to be married without informing her of their destination) is a good example. Yes, I am sure it is probably meant to be a joke about how romantic such scenes played out in the past. But it still fails at the primary test a movie must pass – it is unpleasant to see in action. The film spreads out moments like that for a tortuous three hours – yea, we get a catchy song out of the deal (this is a film where that Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York” comes from) but we don’t see the characters change as much as they should, besides to mope about their existence in a Technicolor wonderland.
Now, none of this means that it is a poorly made film. Even Minelli is tolerable. DeNiro gives his usual good performance and the sets and mise en scene all look fantastic. Yes, it looks artificial, but that often helps the film and create the sort of dream like atmosphere that Coppola would perfect with One From the Heart. I think that Scorsese is incapable of truly making a horrendous film. He is too natural a filmmaker who understands the power of images to make a truly irrelevant one. Even New York, New York is an entertaining film, in that old Hollywood way. But this time around, Scorsese did not have worthy characters to back up the material. Had these been Scorsese’s usual cast of defined characters looking for meaning in their sad lives (and doing it well), he could have done succeeded with this daffy musical. And Scorsese does try; he just does not succeed because he is asking us to become invested in the cinematic equivalent of stick figures.
I guess Scorsese was tired of that sort of look and wanted to actually show why he loved New York, using a language he knew quite well. It didn’t work, but it doesn’t fail as hard as it could have. It doesn’t feel like a bad film, just like a hopelessly weird one that feels like it comes from another dimension where the New Hollywood revolution never occurred. Fortunately, this film did not completely derail Scorsese’s career. I am not saying that a director is not free to try new ideas and new approaches. But it helps to be able to anticipate how to utilize such changes. Filming scenes that turn Liza Minelli into Marilyn Monroe are not, as a general rule, going to work.