Surely the most innocuous movie ever to become a scandal, Woody Allen’s A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK is one of the filmmaker’s most frivolous confections, such a lightweight affair it feels in danger of floating away while you watch it. Shot in the summer of 2017 as part of a four-picture deal with Amazon Studios, the movie wrapped right around the same time the streaming service cancelled their red carpet premiere of Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” citing new attention to decades-old allegations against the director in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Amazon ended up shelving “Rainy Day” indefinitely in the U.S., prompting a $68 million lawsuit by Allen for breach of contract that was settled out of court last November with the picture ultimately returned to the filmmaker.
In the interim, several cast members made a big show of denouncing their director, GQ Magazine going so far as to claim star Timothée Chalamet had “just ended Woody Allen’s career” after the actor expressed regrets on Instagram and donated his salary to charity. Similar renunciations followed from co-stars Rebecca Hall and Selena Gomez, with Allen’s former leading ladies Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig getting into the act as well. Kate Winslet recently threw her “Wonder Wheel” director under the bus while nosing around for a nomination for her upcoming “Ammonite,” signaling that “Woody Regrets” will now be a mandatory stop on the Oscar campaign publicity rounds. As a sanguine Allen notes in his delightful new memoir “Apropos Of Nothing,” not working with him has “become the thing to do–like everyone suddenly being into kale.”
“There are those who are comfortable in their certainty. I am not. I don’t know the truth,” actress Cherry Jones (who plays Chalamet’s mother in “Rainy Day”) told The New York Times. What fascinates me about all this is how little it took for the town to turn on Allen, considering how these accusations were fully investigated and found baseless by both The Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of the Yale/New Haven Hospital and the New York State Department of Social Services more than 25 years ago. No new information has come to light, the facts being exactly the same as they were in 1992, or even in the early 2010s when films like “Midnight In Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” were winning Academy Awards and scoring the biggest box office grosses of Allen’s career.
I have learned the hard way that it’s probably not worth picking fights with folks who have decided that they know more than the child psychologists and law enforcement officials who investigated the allegations, or those who wish to dismiss the words of Moses Farrow and never asked what an electric train set was doing in an attic crawlspace, anyway. Let them eat kale. Besides, we’re supposed to be talking about “A Rainy Day In New York” here, which for a while was only available to U.S. audiences as an in-flight option on American Airlines, and then briefly, bizarrely became the #1 movie in the world back in May when South Korean movie theaters reopened. The film’s strange journey has at last come to an end with a North American release from upstart distributor MPI Media Group, and after these past three years of posturing, nonsense, and high moral dudgeon, I find it hilariously ironic that I was able to rent it from Amazon.
Your tolerance level for Allen’s 48th feature will presumably be determined by your reaction to its lead character being named Gatsby Welles, an absurd affectation so wonderfully Woody-ish I believe it belongs in Allen’s awkward moniker hall of fame alongside such handles as Fielding Mellish and Ellis Moonsong. (To be fair, it makes more sense later in the film, given what we learn about his mother.) Frenetically played by an unmodulated young Chalamet, this supposedly contemporary college student is a wiseacre cardsharp who wears tweed sport-jackets and smokes cigarettes out of a plastic holder like John Barrymore. Gatsby goes to underground crap games and hangs out at hotel piano bars, crooning Chet Baker ballads. The character, like his creator, remains adamantly oblivious to any cultural happening post-1956.
His ditsy debutante girlfriend Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) gets a chance to interview her favorite brooding, Bergman-esque film director (Liev Schreiber) in the big city, prompting a road trip from their rural, upstate college and a day-long comedy of errors and misadventures that could be easily have been avoided if only anybody knew how to text. Ashleigh soon finds herself bouncing all over town, in and out of uncomfortable situations with a cuckolded screenwriter (Jude Law) and a hunky matinee idol (Diego Luna), while Gatsby keeps getting stood up and kills time with his ex-girlfriend’s sardonic kid sister, played by an unexpectedly excellent Selena Gomez.
For fun I jotted down a list of topics discussed by these ostensible 21-year-olds, including but not limited to Yasser Arafat, Grace Kelly, “Gigi,” Sky Masterson, John Singer Sargent, aftershave, “White Heat,” Charlie Parker, Jane Greer, and Irving Berlin. Of course this has always been the case with Woody’s characters: his references get older and they stay the same age. But whereas in the past younger-ish actors like Scarlett Johansson and (especially) Jesse Eisenberg have been able to make his dialogue tics sound natural, Chalamet and Fanning appear to be reciting an alien language they learned phonetically, waving their arms and overselling the lines. It’s only Gomez who hangs back and underplays, putting a tart, frisky spin on the zingers. She even got a laugh out of me with the admittedly lame, “Your girlfriend’s from Arizona? What do you two talk about, cactus?”
As is the case with most late-period Allen pictures, “A Rainy Day In New York” is much better directed than written, showcasing some staggeringly beautiful work by the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro that captures the warmth of spring sun-shower in all its erratic incandescence. There are cozy comforts to be found in the film’s classical merits, its attention to blocking and composition as much of a throwback as the dated references and old timey gags. (There’s even a character named Larry Lipschitz!) Watch the patience with which Woody waits to pay off a throwaway gag about Gatsby’s sister-in-law having a bad laugh, holding a beat or two extra for the kind of sublime timing that can’t be taught. The film’s flaws are all right there on the surface but its virtues run somewhere deeper. Like a lot of Allen’s recent movies, it’s infused with a melancholy longing for a lost era that we know never existed in the first place, yet yearn for all the same. I like it more than I probably should.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.