Losing Touch With the New York State of Mind

Written by Eric Kohn on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

“Woooodeee, pleeeeze,” shouted the ecstatic, camerawielding French woman, hoping to nab a portrait as Woody Allen continued on his way. The scene took place while I was standing in line for a screening at the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago. In France, the septuagenarian filmmaker merits a rock star’s welcome. Despite the commotion, Allen looked unhurried and completely at ease. Several films into his self-imposed European exile, New York’s seminal chronicler of urban neuroses was finally in his element.

This year is proving to be no exception:

Allen arrived at Cannes with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, an amusing ensemble piece that intelligently juggles themes involving death and sex with a dexterity reminiscent of the filmmaker’s 1980s period—except the setting was, once again, London, not New York.

Leaving the city was the best thing that ever happened to Woody Allen. While Annie Hall and Manhattan retain their combined stature as definitive New York cinema, his urban dramas made at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st reeked of anachronisms. Casting younger actors to play the rambling “Woody” character yielded an embarrassing blend of contemporary and dated sensibilities. When Jason Biggs bitched at the camera in Anything Else (2003), you could practically sense Allen nibbling his fingernails behind it, slowly coming to the realization that he no longer belonged here.

Recently, Allen told a group of reporters in Madrid that New York’s price tag has grown too high for his movies. New Yorkers were not pleased. “Hey, Woody Allen,” read a Gawker headline, “Please Stop Bitching About New York.” But the reality is that Allen’s bitching belongs overseas. Instead, our culture pundits should take aim at Oliver Stone, a New York filmmaker long overdue for an exodus.

Allen’s practical reason for leaving New York—that nobody would fund his movies—is plausible since he churned out one box office dud after another. When Allen left the states, however, he was welcomed abroad with open arms. Match Point, his 2005 London-set noir starring Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, landed him his best reviews in years. And Vicky Cristina Barcelona made him an Oscar contender once again. Both movies have a unique sense of the environments where they take place, filtered through Allen’s exotic vision of European luxuries. His brief return to his old stomping grounds last year with the disjointed Larry David vehicle Whatever Works only furthered the need for him to stay away from Manhattan. Allen belongs in his new terrain, making movies that at least give him the chance to escape his old shell. In Europe, Allen makes distinctive fantasies, whereas his recent New York comedies are merely out of touch.

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, an unnecessary sequel to his 1987 classic, hits theaters this week a mere two days after the release of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Although Stone’s followup ostensibly updates the vision of elite stockbroker culture first portrayed in his initial installment, he appears to suffer from his own Woody Allen problem.

The movie’s opening act is a rush of engaging drama, with Shia LaBeouf playing a slick trader dating original hustling criminal Gordon Gekko’s daughter (played by Carey Mulligan). Gekko is portrayed by Michael Douglas with the same smarminess he originally brought to the role. This time, however, he slips into the plot as a whiny dad hoping to make amends with his estranged kid. His feeble attempts at reconciliation turn an initially engaging story about fiscal corruption on the crest of the 2008 stock market crash into sentimental gibberish. Call it the Darth Vader syndrome: Just as George Lucas turned his iconic villain into a pathetic child with the origin story of the Star Wars prequels, Money Never Sleeps destroys the legacy of Gordon Gekko by making him seem sympathetic.

In the original Wall Street, Gekko represented a particularly gruesome New York state of mind, and the character virtually served as an expansion of the city around him. The movie’s final shot shows the reformed Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) walking up the steps of a courthouse, after helping the cops bust Gekko for his illegal business transactions. The camera pulls back to reveal a bird’s eye view of the city, suggesting that the island of Manhattan contains millions of Gekkos—an unkillable contagion. That’s what makes the movie timeless, and the detached view of rich family drama in the sequel so listless. Gekko was a symbol. By turning him soft, Stone has killed his most famous creation.

By not getting Gordon Gekko, Stone demonstrates that he doesn’t get New York. When Allen’s grip on New York faded, he fled. Stone should follow suit. Money Never Sleeps feels like it was made by an outsider, and probably should have been outsourced.

But if we throw Stone and reject his mangled vision of the city, there are other filmmakers waiting to fill their shoes. Sean Baker’s observant Prince of Broadway (which opened earlier this month) delivers a sharp portrait of Downtown counterfeiters, a group of illegal immigrants plagued by family troubles and skirmishes with the law. Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani’s 2007 tale of life in a Queens junkyard, emphasizes the agony of the lower class by displaying the work routine of a child (he also directed Man Push Cart about a Pakistani immigrant who sells coffee and bagels from a Manhattan pushcart). Josh and Benny Safdie’s recent Daddy Longlegs focuses on an eternally frustrated New York City projectionist constantly forced to choose between work obligations and responsibilities toward his children.

These movies feature unpolished, hardened urban characters that come closer to expressing the local zeitgeist than anything in Stone’s return to Wall Street. Money Never Sleeps signals that Stone, like Allen before him, needs to wake up—and pack up and leave.