The concept of a short-film compilation by three of the greatest American directors ever (Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen) seems like a brilliant idea, until you start to actually think about it. I love Raging Bull, and I love Manhattan, but would it be an improvement if they were squeezed one-after-another into a single four hour movie? My guess is no.
Although it might not yield the most singular artistic vision, what would, at the very least, be fascinating to watch and discuss, would be some sort of collaborative effort. Coppola and Allen writing a movie together, for example. Or Woody acting in a Scorsese movie. It could be brilliant, or it could be a total disaster, but at least it would be something new and interesting.
No such luck with New York Stories, however. Each director contributed one 40-ish minute self-contained short film, and they’re all rolled together into one single movie. Each short film exists in a vacuum, with no spill-over. Each director shot the film for inclusion in this pre-planned project, but they could just has easily have been made at any other time for any other reason.
The theoretical connection between these movies is that they’re all “New York stories.” Although, all three of these directors mostly set their movies in New York anyway, and most of the time, those movies have more to do with New York than their contributions to this compilation. This movie has Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen listed in the credits, but it’s not a collaboration.
Part 1: Life Lessons [Martin Scorsese]
As Life Lessons begins, the subject matter (moody artist with a much-younger girlfriend) seems to suggest that perhaps it’s Woody Allen’s contribution to New York Stories. Suggesting otherwise, however, is the fact that that the first five minutes also contain: extreme close-ups, a point-of-view shot of an inanimate object, slow motion, and songs written since 1960 playing on the soundtrack. All of these things exist well outside of Woody Allen’s cinematic repertoire.
It was refreshing settling into a Woody Allen movie and being hit with something so different. Martin Scorsese could film paint drying and make it exciting. Woody Allen could film paint drying and it would accurately replicate the experience of being in a room with real paint and watching it drying. A large part of my appreciation for this change of pace probably stems from how staid and controlled Allen’s films have been of late. It’s possible that Life Lessons contains more cuts than Woody Allen’s entire late-’80s output.
The film is about a painter by the name of Lionel Dobie, played by an appropriately leonine Nick Nolte. He’s famous and respected, but also obsessively in love with his assistant Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), who’s 20 years his junior and an aspiring painter.
He loves her so truly and deeply that he doesn’t even need her to love him back. He’d like her to, but even if she won’t kiss him, let him touch her, or love him back in any way, he’ll settle for her continuing to live with him (in a separate bedroom, obviously). Paulette, meanwhile, has her eye on a performance artist (Steve Buscemi), who’s actually just a gimmicky, mediocre stand-up comedian.
Many people probably think of Woody Allen as America’s cinematic class clown and Martin Scorsese as the gritty chronicler of fascinating sociopaths, but in the 1980s, Scorsese was having a lot more fun at the movies. Between 1983 and 1986 he directed two dark comedies (The King of Comedy and After Hours) and the Tom Cruise-starring action film The Color of Money. While Woody Allen was making the humorless, self-serious September, Martin Scorsese was directing music videos with Michael Jackson.
Perhaps it makes sense then, that, despite its cinematographical intensity, Life Lessons is otherwise light and funny. The Scorsese movie that it most closely resembles is 1984’s After Hours, about an office drone who experiences a nightmarish evening in a comically exaggerated SoHo, New York. Life Lessons takes place in the same part of the city, and many of the characters seem like the same hyperbolic weirdos and hippies that torment poor Griffin Dunne in After Hours — Buscemi’s character, for example, but especially Rosanna Arquette, who plays a sexy, free-spirited artist who toys with the protagonist’s heart and libido in both movies.
Life Lessons also shares After Hours’ dark, satirical sense of humor. Lionel and Paulette are common archetypes exaggerated just enough to be funny. The biggest laugh comes from the ending, when all it takes is a pretty face to take the lecherous, moody Lionel from willing to die for Paulette to not even being able to remember her name.
New York Stories’ first segment is vibrant and funny, but in the end, it doesn’t add up to much more than a diversion. I couldn’t pin-point anything wrong with it, but we don’t get a chance to really know the characters; we’re just momentarily entertained by a moment out of their life. It seems to end just as it was getting interesting.
Part 2: Life Without Zoe [Francis Ford Coppola]
Life Without Zoe is the shortest of the three films. But, despite being only 30 minutes (not much longer than an episode of a sitcom), it felt endless.
Part of the problem stems, perhaps, from the fact that the movie was co-written by Sofia Coppola (the credits cutely say “Written by Francis & Sofia”). Sofia Coppola has become a wonderful director, but she was 17 when this movie was made. I vaguely remember being 17... what sticks out to me most about that period is how terrible all of my ideas were. Even Sofia Coppola, at that age, might not have been ready for primetime.
Sofia Coppola is also the film’s costume designer, and Carmine Coppola is the composer. Gia Coppola and Talia Shire (birth name: Talia Coppola) are in the cast. All of these people (except possibly Gia, who I’ve never heard of) are incredibly talented, but the movie’s already inexplicable and filled with what feels like in-jokes, so the heavy family presence made me think that maybe Life Without Zoe was less of a short film and more of a fun family project for the weekend.
How else to explain such a drab oddity from the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now? The story concerns Zoe, a super-rich little girl with her own driver and butler. Her parents (Shire and Giancarlo Giannini) are busy and distant. The plot involves a stolen diamond and a princess, although it was very confusing. Everyone in the film talks in a bizarre, stilted cadence. Many lines and scenes make absolutely no sense.
I was tempted to give such prestigious talent the benefit of the doubt and assume that what I was watching was going over my head, but then I kept remembering: co-written by a 17-year-old. Plus, the movie has a whimsical tone (although occasionally it is jarringly botched), and many elements (the princess, the diamond, the quest) are familiar from fantasy stories. My best guess is that the movie was intended to be some sort of self-aware, modern New York fairy tale.
But, to be honest, I became less and less interested as the movie went on. I’m lucky that this blog isn’t called “Every Francis Ford Coppola Movie,” because then I would have been obligated to pay attention. As it was, I spent the last 10 minutes (at least) mostly just checking Facebook and Googling Scarlett Johannson on my iPhone.
Part 3: Oedipus Wrecks [Woody Allen]
Maybe I’m just saying this because, after 23 straight Woody Allen movies, a bit of Stockholm Syndrome has set in, but Oedipus Wrecks blows the other short films out of the water and emerges as the indisputable best of the three.
Oedipus Wrecks is pure comedy. I think that’s the right idea for this project — unapologetically goofy humor not only works in small doses, but is often better at 30 minutes than at 90.
This is Allen’s first comedy since Broadway Danny Rose, although the last time he did something this single-mindedly funny was probably Love and Death, which feels like a lifetime ago. During the early, funny films I often opined that I was getting anxious for more serious fare, but at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, it’s great seeing him so free-wheeling and funny after so many downers in a row.
A lot of people felt this way, apparently, and Allen did this as an attempt to win back some of his fans (and also because he said he was bored of making ‘realistic’ movies). Said fans could not possibly have asked for a better reprieve — Oedipus Wrecks is everything that September, Another Woman and Hannah and her Sisters was not. It’s filled with exactly the same smart, wacky, Jewish humor that made him famous in the first place. If calculating on a laughter-per-minute basis, it’s one of the funniest movie he’s made yet.
After sitting out the last three movies, Allen makes a welcome return to the screen, playing Sheldon Mills, a lawyer with an overbearing mother (Mae Questel). She humiliates him in front of his fiancé (Mia Farrow) — and even his co-workers, when she shows up to the office — by telling embarrassing stories and showing photos of him running around naked as a child.
One day, he takes his mother and fiancé out to a magic show. His mother takes part in a disappearing trick, but the trick works too well... she disappears, but no one, even the magician, knows where she went (there was a similar joke in Broadway Danny Rose, when a magician hypnotizes a man’s wife and she never wakes up from it). The theatre owner (Larry David) offers his family two free tickets to another show, to make up for disappearing his mother.
At first Sheldon feels crushed and confused by his mother’s disappearance, but soon, he feels overjoyed. For the first time in his life he feels truly free. He tells his therapist “I’m a new man.” With his fiancé, he finally feels comfortable and relaxed.
However, the film’s brilliant comic twist is that his mother re-appears... in the sky. Casting down guilt and humiliation from the heavens, his mother now embarrasses him not just in front of his fiancé or co-workers, but in front of the entire city of New York.
Soon, the entire city has an opinion on whether or not he should marry Lisa (Farrow), whether it was right for him to change his name from Millstein to Mills, and whether he’s a good son. Even with his tiny mother sitting in her apartment, Sheldon felt overwhelmed by her presence. With her taking on God-like ubiquity and power, he’s living in the ultimate Freudian nightmare.
When his fiancé leaves him, after tiring of the humiliation and the public attention, Sheldon turns desperate and consults Treva, an alleged psychic, played by Julie Kavner.
Her psychic powers don’t bring his mother out of the sky, although, along the way, the two fall in love. Treva is the opposite of Lisa — Jewish, exuberant, a terrible cook. All of these things maker her, in Sheldon’s mother’s eyes, the perfect woman for her son. She’s so happy for this new couple, she even agrees to come down out of the sky for him. The movie ends with her showing Treva Sheldon’s baby photos.
This short film’s status as his funniest movie may be debatable, but there’s little argument that it’s his most Jewish. Woody Allen has spent a bunch of movies in a row poring over Mia Farrow’s pristine WASPiness, not daring to tarnish her purity with something so vulgar as humor, but in this movie, she’s mostly portrayed with contempt, as a bland, white-bread snob.
On the other side of the table is the great Julie Kavner. She’s been in a couple other Allen films, but mostly in very small capacities. Here, she really gets a chance to shine, and show us what Allen has seen in her for so long. In her psychic mode, she’s incredibly funny, chanting and calling to the dead with the perfect mix of deadpan sincerity and optimism. As the woman that Sheldon falls in love with, she’s one of the most funny, attractive and likable Allen leading ladies since Annie Hall.
I was a great admirer of Another Woman, Interiors and even, to a certain degree, September, yet they still felt partly like exercises, or experiments; like Allen was consciously trying to do something different. Oedipus Wrecks on the other hand, is so natural and easy-going it’s hard to feel like this isn’t Woody Allen’s true voice. It may be unfair for me to say, but it seems like this is what flows from Allen naturally, while movies like Another Woman are effortful departures.
Laughing for 35 straight minutes is truly a liberating experience. I’m really not trying to be down on Allen’s serious films, but watching Oedipus Wrecks felt like finally escaping a conversation with a brilliant but self-absorbed and humorless party guest and getting back into the room with all the nice, funny people. The first two thirds of New York Stories is 50% pretty good and 50% god-awful, but Oedipus Wrecks is essential for Allen fans.
- [about his mother]
“What can I say? I love her, but I wish she would disappear.”
- “I need oxygen. I need to get out. I need fresh air. I need cyanide.”
- “This morning she told the entire borough of Queens that I have a hiatus hernia.”
- “How do you think I feel? She’s out there, calling me all these names. What’s a ‘koorvah’ anyway?”
“Oh, it’s Jewish.”
“Oh, nothing. Just, y’know... whore.”
- “And the worst part is... Lisa and I keep fighting. We keep snapping at each other, and... I, I dunno, I gotta commit suicide. It’s the only way.”
- “I’m a guy who believes in science and rational thought.”
“Right. And meanwhile, your mother is hovering over the Chrysler building.”
- The Oedipus Wrecks segment features two famous voices — that of Betty Boop (Mae Questel) and that of Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner).
- Mae Questel (the mother), who’s also a singer, sang the song “Do The Chameleon” for the movie Zelig.
- While looking into the history of short-film compilations, I was surprised to discover that the most financially successful short-film compilation of all-time is still Woody Allen’s own Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.
- The role of the magician was originally written for Wallace Shawn. Instead, Allen decided to go with a real magician (George Schindler).
- Pop-stars Peter Gabriel and Deborah Harry (of Blondie) have cameos in Life Lessons.
- Kirsten Dunst makes her screen debut as one of Mia Farrow’s daughters.
- Adrien Brody makes his screen debut in Life Without Zoe.
- Mia Farrow is still pregnant, which means this must’ve been shot around the same time as Another Woman.
- Paul Herman appears in both Oedipus Wrecks and Life Without Zoe
- In Life Lessons, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” recurs on the soundtrack at significant moments. I spent a good half-hour or so trying to track down who’d performed the cover. Turns out it was, appropriately enough, I suppose, the Rolling Stones.