No idea why I avoided seeing New York New York. A musical paying homage to the Golden Age of cinema sounds like something I’d really like but somehow I just never got around to it until now.
VJ Day celebrations, New York, 1945. Despite her reservations Francine (Liza Minelli) spends the night with obnoxious jerk Jimmy Doyle ( Robert De Niro). Both turn out to be musicians. She’s a big band singer, he plays the saxophone. For reasons even Francine does not seem to understand she begins a long term relationship with this joker. Their destructive romance contrasts with the success their musical partnership brings them professionally.I sat down to watch New York New York with with high expectations because I tend to prefer Scorsese’s more atypical movies than the gritty violent dramas people consider his default setting. I’ll take After Hours (1985) or The Age of Innocence (1993) over Goodfellas (90) any day of the week. New York New York a fine film beautifully shot by László Kovács and fuelled by nostalgia for the classic musicals of the 40s’ and 50s’. Boris Levan’s set design perfectly recreates the artificiality of studio built sets, which were meant to look better than real life ever could. The excellent musical numbers are a mixture of jazz standards and new tracks by John Kander and Fred Ebb, writers of the stage-play Cabaret. I wish I could really love it, but there’s just one problem.
This guy.De Niro gets a lot of stick for his career choices over the last twenty years but this is by far his worst performance because it diminishes an interesting film. For a practitioner of an acting style which supposedly encourages ‘authenticity’ De Niro is unbearably mannered here. Minnelli seems naturalistic in comparison and wears a barely concealed look of astonishment in every reaction shot to her co-star’s over-acting. The lack of chemistry between them is obvious from their first meeting during the VJ celebrations when Jimmy sits down uninvited at Francine’s table and pesters her for a date. These early scenes are meant to echo the first meeting between lovers in a screwball comedy who begin their courtship by hating each other but the attempt at witty repartee falls flat partly because De Niro is about as charming as cement.Casting actors with two very different acting styles is deliberate. Minnelli is showbiz royalty, the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, while De Niro honed his technique at the Actor’s Studio. This contrast between the magic of old Hollywood and the grittiness of Scorsese’s work is there in the story too. New York New York might stylistically recreate the crowd-pleasing escapism of the Hollywood musical but at the movie’s heart is a troubled volatile relationship and it’s as tough as anything Scorsese has made. While I’m ashamed of not having seen New York New York until now I don’t feel as guilty as DeNiro should for gurning his way through it.