You will recall that “Midnight in Paris” (2011), Woody Allen’s last unquestionably great film, told the story of a man in the grips of terminal nostalgia who found himself given the opportunity to go back to his idealized era where he felt more comfortable, where his cultural touchstones were still fresh and vibrant. Allen’s latest film, “A Rainy Day in New York,” feels like a work from someone in the midst of that very same condition. This is Allen’s 48th movie (a 49th, “Rifkin’s Festival,” premiered last month) and while he has certainly made worse films than this one during that time, rarely has he come up with something as utterly inconsequential as this collection of rehashed themes, characters, and punchlines.
The movie’s basic premise—two college sweethearts go to New York to spend a weekend together only to get themselves separated and embroiled in a series of misadventures—may not sound especially ambitious but it is one that could theoretically be spun out into a pleasant diversion in the hands of a writer as gifted as Allen. Unfortunately, once the opening credits, scored to Bing Crosby crooning “I Got Lucky in the Rain,” have concluded, the whole enterprise goes off the rails right then and there with the introduction of the central male character, a brilliant but directionless bon vivant college student. His name, I kid you not, is Gatsby Welles, which has to be the most ridiculous moniker in the Allen oeuvre since Fielding Mellish. This is bad enough but the pain is compounded by the awkward and charmless performance by Timothée Chalamet as Gatsby. Like so many lead actors in the Allen films where he doesn’t appear, he gives a performance where he has been clearly asked to deliver his lines in as close of an approximation to Allen’s familiar cadences as he can muster.
The plot is launched into motion when Gatsby’s girlfriend, intrepid-but-ditsy student journalist Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning), snags an interview for the school paper with famous filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) and he has the idea of making a fancy weekend of it funded by his recent poker winnings—drinks at the Carlyle, museum trips and, most importantly, avoiding a big party being thrown by his socialite mother (Cherry Jones). Things go south after they arrive when Ashleigh goes off to her interview and finds Roland in an existential and creative funk and contemplating giving it all up. He brings Ashleigh to a private screening of his new film but is so appalled with the movie that he bolts to go off on a bender, leaving his longtime collaborator, Ted Davidoff (Jude Law) to try to track him down, of course bringing Ashleigh along since she actually loves the film. This leads to her encountering a famous actor (Diego Luna) as well and before long, all three men find themselves besotted with her beauty, her unspoiled innocence, and her inability to hold her liquor.
With time on his hands, Gatsby wanders around, visits his brother Hunter (Will Rogers), who is contemplating cancelling his impending marriage because he is put off by the sound of his fiancee’s laughter, and eventually winds up being pressed into service for a friend directing a student film who needs someone for a scene in which they passionately kiss the lead actress. This is Chan (Selena Gomez), who happens to be the younger sister of one of Gatsby’s old girlfriends, and who may have had a crush on him herself. The two wind up spending much of the afternoon together before he is eventually dragooned into appearing at his mother’s party. With Ashleigh still MIA, he ends up hiring a sex worker (Kelly Rohrbach) to pose as her, a move that winds up having unexpected repercussions to his relationship with his mom.
Although Allen is ostensibly writing a film about contemporary relationships involving young people, the dialogue has a bizarrely dated feel in which the characters toss off bon mots involving such hip references as Lenny from Of Mice and Men, Sky Masterson and, somewhat unfortunately, “Gigi.” If Allen were doing another period piece, as has been the case with his last several projects, this would make sense. But to set a film in current-day New York and have the young characters busting out jokes about Arafat suggests that either this was a script that he wrote long ago and pulled out of a drawer or that he no longer has any real interest in contemporary angst and anxieties, certainly not to the degree that helped to fuel some of his best and most lasting work.
That said, the musty punchlines are hardly the only problem with the screenplay. Neither Gatsby nor Ashleigh are particularly interesting characters, making it hard to work up much interest in the state of their relationship. And the various plot developments are little more than reshufflings of ideas that Allen has explored more successfully elsewhere.
To be fair, there are a few amusing one-liners here and there (“Time flies. Unfortunately, it flies coach”), the whole thing looks great thanks to the nearly dreamlike imagery conjured up by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and Selena Gomez brings such life and energy to her scenes as Chan that you can practically feel the film sagging once she takes off. The trouble is that once you get past these elements, hardly anything else about it works. “A Rainy Day in New York” feels like something that belongs in a museum, preferably in storage.