Autumn in New York (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When MGM elected not to screen Autumn In New York for film critics, the decision touched off a minor controversy. First, stars Richard Gere and Winona Ryder spoke out publicly against this move, claiming it was an insult to the integrity of their film (director Joan Chen wisely declined to comment). The MGM execs countered with the disingenuous claim that the decision had nothing to do with their opinion of the movie's quality; they didn't want critics revealing the "surprise ending" (for the record, there is nothing surprising about the ending). In reality, the distributor was trying to avoid making an open declaration of "no confidence." However, while Autumn In New York is nothing more or less ambitious than a two hanky melodrama, it's not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Am I the only one who is weary of seeing wooden actor Richard Gere involved in on-screen romances with women half his age? First, there was Julia Roberts, now there's Winona Ryder. Gere, who will turn 51 this month (and looks about 10 years older than his actual age), seems incapable of appearing in a movie where his ego is not stroked by having a relationship with a younger woman. The Autumn In New York age chasm wouldn't be as obvious if there was evidence of chemistry between Gere and Ryder, but there is none. They're like two strangers who are awkward and embarrassed to be in one another's arms.

As for Ryder, she's yesterday's girl - a once-hot property who has failed to live up to her bright promise. A decade ago, when she was in her late teens and early 20s, she was on everyone's list of talent to watch, in demand by such prominent directors as Francis Ford Coppola (who wanted her for The Godfather Part III then got her for his version of Dracula) and Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence). But eight years of sporadic activity and bad choices have taken their toll, relegating her to formulaic roles like the one she's stuck in in Autumn In New York. Admittedly, there's nothing wrong with her performance - it's heartfelt and appealing - but this kind of work is unlikely to remove the tarnish on her reputation.

The main story follows the obligatory romantic melodrama outline. Boy (in this case womanizer restaurateur Will Keane, played by Gere) meets girl (virginal Charlotte, played by Ryder). Boy falls for girl. Complications ensue. Girl is revealed to have a terminal illness that allows her to be more beautiful the closer she gets to dying. In the long tradition of half-baked tearjerkers like this one, we get lots of close-ups, picture postcard images (of - surprise! - autumn in New York), and shallow, meaningless dialogue. If your eyes are dry at the end, it's because the central relationship doesn't work.

Autumn In New York is guilty of wasting a fair amount of potentially intriguing material. For instance, there's a substantial subplot that poses that possibility that Will's interest in Charlotte may represent a transference of long dormant feelings he once had for her mother. Does he love Charlotte, or is she merely a stand-in for her mother, whom he wronged? We never find out; this element is dropped when it becomes inconvenient to the main storyline. Then there's a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who shadows Will, watching him with an ambiguous expression that suggests she's more than a spurned lover. Her identity is eventually revealed, but far less is done with her character than should have been accomplished.

Autumn In New York's director is actress-turned-filmmaker Joan Chen, making her Hollywood debut behind the camera after helming the brilliant, haunting Xiu Xiu. To say this is a step down is an understatement; without the credits, no one would guess the two movies were the work of the same person. Admittedly, Chen is limited by her material and stars, so it's fair to say she does what she can with what she has been given. She tries mightily to make the setting important, adding numerous shots of falling leaves and New York City streets and skyscrapers, but time and place come across as more of an afterthought than a necessary element. And she can't work around the crucial lack of connection between Gere and Ryder. Ultimately, Autumn In New York is a workmanlike product that offers occasional, small moments of satisfaction, but, as a whole, is apt to leave audiences wondering why they should care.

Autumn in New York (United States, 2000)

Director: Joan Chen
Cast: Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga
Screenplay: Allison Burnett
Cinematography: Chang Wei Gu
Music: Gabriel Yared
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2000-08-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1