A generous reading of Martin Scorsese’s quasi-musical, New York, New York, would situate the film as a grand attempt to mesh Old Hollywood artifice with New Hollywood realism. And, indeed, the juxtaposition of intense Method acting with soundstage fakery gives New York, New York a unique flavor. However, even though the film’s look is exquisite—Scorsese and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs create dazzling effects with dense compositions and elegant camera movement—the project’s aesthetic value is undermined by the trite narrative and the ridiculous running time (nearly three hours).
A period piece that begins in the mid-1940s and stretches into the ’50s, New York, New York presents an uninteresting riff on the oft-filmed A Star is Born formula. Sax player Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) is an egomaniacal, insecure, sexist hothead with the morals of a snake. His on-again/off-again lover, Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), wobbles between being a doormat and being a shrew during her long career as a singer. As per the A Star is Born playbook, Jimmy helps Francine achieve fame but then resents her success, and his jealousy (combined with his self-destructive behavior) drives them apart. Watching an asshole abuse an enabler doesn’t make for the most enjoyable experience. Worse, the film is subplot-averse; although minor characters including an agent (Lionel Stander), a bandleader (Barry Priums), and a chanteuse (Mary Kay Place) all get decent amounts of screen time, these characters exist only to accentuate Jimmy, Francine, or both.
Scorsese’s fidelity to such pet themes as the animalistic nature of overachieving men is admirable, after a fashion, but the inescapable question is why Scorsese thought the world needed a bummer musical done in the candy-colored style of a World War II-era MGM extravaganza. Plus, at times, it seems Scorsese would have preferred making a straight-up song-and-dance epic. In a long sequence that was cut from the original release but restored for reissues, Francine toplines a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie (she plays a character who’s playing a third character). The sequence, built around the song “Happy Endings,” has the over-the-top production design and boisterous vocalizing one normally associates with the work Minnelli’s father, director Vincente Minnelli, did with the actress’ mother, showbiz legend Judy Garland. What this homage has to do with New York, New York’s street-level story of Jimmy’s love life is anyone’s guess.
Broadway tunesmiths John Kander and Fred Ebb created a number of original songs for this project, the most famous of which is the title track (“Theme from New York, New York”), but there’s a fundamental imbalance stemming from the fact that only one of the protagonists sings. Whenever Minnelli bursts into song while De Niro fakes playing the sax, she overwhelms the movie. That suits the A Star is Born formula, of course, but it represents yet another manner in which New York, New York feels contrived and inorganic. Often (rightfully) cited as a prime example of auteur-era hubris, since Scorsese went apeshit with grandiose sets and hordes of extras while creating easily half the film’s scenes, New York, New York isn’t an outright disaster, simply because the technical aspects are impeccable. That said, the movie’s absurd scope bludgeons the story’s meager virtues to a degree that’s almost laughable, and De Niro’s characterization is so repellent that the performance wears out its welcome far before New York, New York’s endless 163 minutes have unspooled.
New York, New York: FUNKY