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New York Stories Review

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Three stories related only by their dependence on and depiction through New York: an ageing painter falls for his young assistant (directed by Scorsese), a rich girl lounges in her hotel room (directed by Coppola), and a son faces up to his Jewish-American demons (directed by Allen).

★★★★

On paper New York Stories sounds like a dream. Woody Allen invites his pals Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola to contribute a segment each as part of a triptych, the only proviso being that the stories are set in New York. This is merely the cinematic equivalent of limiting Dickens to London, since all three directors have in their time shaped our cinema-fed conceptions of the Big Apple. Coppola’s evocation of Little Italy and the wealthier reaches of Long Island in the Godfather films, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and After Hours, and nearly all the Allen films — especially the romantic paean Manhattan — are as much the chronicle of a city as the gangsters, psychos and artists who people it.

Yet with these directors, it’s often a question of form. The 80s have been rather mixed for all three, though Scorsese has managed at least one masterpiece with Raging Bull (1980) and almost triggered a religious war with The Last Temptation Of Christ. His contribution, Life Lessons, is a meditation on obsessional love and artistic inspiration, and it’s a brilliant piece of work. Nick Nolte plays a celebrated painter, hounded by his agent over a forthcoming exhibition and hooked on his (much younger) personal assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), herself a fledgling artist. Nolte dominates the screen with his bearish physique and brooding demeanour—he’s tortured by Paulette’s rejection of him, but that’s also what drives him to create his big, bold canvases. We are watching the end of an affair, and though both behave appallingly to each other, you can’t help feeling a strange affection for them. Nolte has come through by the end, and we’re left to ponder whether he’ll make all the same mistakes again. An old story, perhaps, but superbly acted and directed with the sort of imaginative verve we see all too rarely in Scorsese these days.

It’s a pity that Coppola’s film is in the middle panel, since that means you can’t walk out without missing the third. Simply put, it’s a tedious, tasteless fiasco. Co-written with his daughter Sofia, Life Without Zoe concerns a 12-year-o/d kid who lives a life of opulent ease in a swanky New York hotel, hanging out with a bunch of similarly moneyed, Chanel-clad brats. You get the idea we’re meant to find them irresistible, but we don’t. The story—or part of it—is a sliver of nonsense about the reunion of Zoe’s beautiful, brilliant parents; the rest plays like a sick hymn to materialism, and it adds up to an all-time low for Coppola. Some of us still remember when he used to be a great director.

Oedipus Wrecks will be regarded by many as Woody Allen’s return to form after the lugubrious Bergmanesque outings of recent years: September and Another Woman. It’s a madcap fantasy that revives the Jewish mother/son schtick to winning effect: we’ve seen it before, but it still charms. Completists will recall the “magician’s box” trick from one of his New Yorker short stores, The Kugelmass Episode, and if it’s not quite as manically funny this time, it still affords the priceless shot of Woody smiling onscreen.

New York Stories is a curious ensemble, then: one director on top form, one plainly on the skids, and one casually proving that, when the mood takes him, he’s still the king of comedy.

Two out of three aint bad. It's a privilege to see Scorsese and Allen firing so well, but Coppola's rut continues.

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