American Gotham

It's not often you can pinpoint exactly where a generally terrific movie goes dead wrong--but that's no hard chore while watching New York Stories, a three-part anthology of unrelated minifilms directed by Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Francis Coppola. This unusual project derails after Scorsese's vignette and gets back on track with the first frames of Woody Allen's curtain dropper.

The filmmakers involved have been hyped as "possibly the three best American directors of their generation," but in truth New York Stories attracted two men who fit that description, and another guy who once had the touch but lost it. That would be Coppola, the brilliant orchestrator of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather films, and the fellow who hits creative bottom with this compilation's inane, rambling middle section. Called Life Without Zoe, the segment was co-written by Coppola and his seventeen-year-old daughter Sofia (who also designed the film's costumes and main titles). You get the impression that Sofia did most of the brainstorming--during a grade-school creative-writing class, perhaps.

What she came up with is an Eloise-like story about a spoiled, little rich girl who dresses like Coco Chanel and lives in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, all but abandoned by her globe-trotting, long-separated parents (Giancarlo Giannini and Talia Shire, Coppola's sister). Bored and lonely, Zoe's day is, er, enlivened by a hotel robbery, a costume ball, the richest little boy in the world, a lost diamond earring and a family reconciliation at the Acropolis.

Coppola doesn't bother to connect those adventures any better than I just did. In the course of its forty or so minutes, Life Without Zoe stumbles in a half-dozen different directions and still goes nowhere. Sure, it looks great; cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor) could shoot a gorgeous movie based on the Manhattan phone book--and you may wish he had. If there are indeed eight million stories in the naked city, why did Coppola chose to tell this one? Ah, well. The doughnut surrounding Coppola's black hole is delicious. The tastiest half is Scorsese's Life Lessons, loosely based on the memoirs of Dostoevsky's mistress and elements of the Russian writer's work, The Gambler. The protagonist is artist Lionel "The Lion" Dobie (Nick Nolte, reveling in one of his best roles ever), a Soho superstar of the Jackson Pollack mold. As the episode begins, Lionel is visited by his dealer (Patrick O'Neal), who fears the artist won't cover enough canvases for an upcoming show. Also, Lionel's live-in assistant-lover (Rosanna Arquette) announces her intention to move out and pursue a new romantic interest--a lowly performance artist! While this information may, as he says, shatter Lionel's heart (you see, the man is not to be trusted on any emotional level), the sexual tension of the relationship fires up his creativity. And to remain productive, he has no obsessive choice but to keep throwing gasoline and lighted matches on the situation.

Written by Richard Price (The Color of Money), Life Lessons hums with lively dialogue (What would Lionel do if his ladylove dumped him? "I'd go up on the roof and howl like a gut-shot dog"), sharply observed characters, and a sensual charge that sparks not only from Lionel's desire but his art. When he's stored up enough heartbreak and frustration to last for a while, he ravages huge canvases with color--slashing, smearing, dabbing, stabbing, as Scorsese's camera follows every mad, powerful stroke.

You rarely see screen images worth a thousand words these days, but Life Lessons piles them up one after another. If this isn't Scorsese's tightest, most invigorating work to date, it's close, marred only by writer Price's unnecessary tag line. Allen completes the triple bill by returning to the screen, and to comedy, with Oedipus Wrecks. This diehard Woody booster would place the segment among his lesser efforts--down there, perhaps, with some of the strictly okay sketches from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. Still, the film boasts moments as good as anything he's done.

Allen casts himself as Sheldon Mills, nee Millstein, a fifty-year-old lawyer with an eternally kvetching, nagging, fussing, baby-photo-toting Jewish mother (Mae Questel, once the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl). Sheldon's love-hate feelings for the woman are fairly balanced, but he really wouldn't mind it if she disappeared off the face of the Earth.

That's precisely what happens when Sheldon and his shiksa fiancee (who else but Mia Farrow?) take the old girl to a magic show, and she's called on-stage to assist with a vanishing act. Poof! She's gone. At first, Sheldon is distraught . . . but after a while--a short while--he starts feeling like he's just signed a long-term, no-restrictions lease on life.

And then Mom returns. I don't want to say how, but the supernatural turn of events reminded me of the scene in Everything . . . About Sex where Woody was chased over the countryside by a two-story, lactating female breast. While the idea probably looked great on paper, on film it was just a silly, unconvincing special effect, too big to be funny.

For me, Questel's fate in Oedipus Wrecks weighs down the story's finish with a too-heavy dose of comic exaggeration. Elsewhere, however, there are snatches of untethered inspiration that soar as high as, um, Jewish mothers. In one hilarious scene, Sheldon's mother and deaf, doddering aunt invade his office. With Gene Krupa's Sing, Sing, Sing pounding on the soundtrack, Sven Nykvist's camera catches the teensy, poorly coiffed ladies' approach from the far end of the hallway--Cats buttons on their lapels and playbills in hand. It's a sight that would unnerve Bruce the Shark.

If you never thought of Allen as a wonderful actor, watch the dawn of love in his face as he looks at a piece of boiled chicken cooked for him by a prospective daughter-in-law any Jewish mother would adore (Julie Kavner, another member of Allen's stock company). To hell with the Actors Studio; imagining you're a Greyhound bus or a frying pan is easy compared to convincing an audience you've found your heart's true love in a drumstick that's dripping with globs of fat.

So, I only have two problems with New York Stories: when Woody's mother vanishes, I wish she had stayed vanished . . . and I wish she'd taken Francis and Sofia Coppola with her.

Two complaints, three movies? That's a bargain at any price. Especially if you go out for coffee in the middle of it.

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Michael Burkett

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