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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Autumn in New York (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Joan Chen
Cast: Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Elaine Stritch, Anthony LaPaglia, Sherry Stringfield, Vera Farmiga, Jill Hennessy.
2000 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 12, 2000.

Ever seen 1970's "Love Story," where Ryan O'Neal had to come to terms with his love, and the impending death, of the sickly Ali McGraw? How about last spring's "Here on Earth," in which Chris Klein was forced to cope with Leelee Sobieski's bout with cancer? Joan Chen's "Autumn in New York" is yet another in a growing trend of romantic weepies, in which two people fall head-over-heels in love, but find themselves being torn apart by one of their inevitable deaths to a token, movie-style illness. Despite MGM's decision to not screen the picture for review for critics, which causes much controversy and talk in Hollywood about how bad it must be, it's with at least partial happiness to report that it really isn't that awful. In fact, "Autumn in New York" isn't bad at all, and while much of the film simply doesn't work based on its worn-out plot mechanics and extremely uneven screenplay by Allison Burnett, the actors manage to raise the film up a notch from being a disaster to merely a passable, flawed time-waster.

Will (Richard Gere) is a womanizing 49-year-old restauranteur who catches a glimpse of the angelic Charlotte (Winona Ryder) celebrating her 22nd birthday with some friends at his restaurant. Their eyes meet, and after a brief meeting, he can't get her out of his mind, despite the sizable age difference. Following an invite to a high-profile gala and a wonderful night together, a romance ensues between the two, although Will is quick to point out to the poetry-loving, child-like Charlotte that "the only thing I can offer you is this--right now." Ah, but Charlotte's got a secret which she quickly divulges to him so "there will be no chance for confusion later on." Charlotte's got a rare heart problem, and she has very little time left to live. So as their love blossoms further, and her time on Earth grows shorter by the day, Will becomes determined to find a possible surgery that will cure her, or at the very least, prolong the inevitable.

It honestly isn't giving anything away to say that Charlotte is dying, because not only do the televisions ads hint around the subject, but it is revealed no more than thirty minutes into the film. The decision to uncover Charlotte's "secret" so early on is one of the film's problems, because since Will now knows about her illness, all scenes between the two revolve strictly around their noticeable age difference and/or her heart problem, and little time is spent actually getting to know the characters. Relatedly, when Charlotte first announces she is sick, the rest of the picture becomes effortless to telegraph in advance, so for the remainder of the film all you can do is sit and wait for the climactic death bed sequence.

Richard Gere and Winona Ryder are lovely together, and it is their hefty acting chops that manage to carry us through the story, predictable as it is. Gere's Will is an earnest man who, nevertheless, has a wandering eye and an unfaithful sexual prowess, despite his love for Charlotte. In essence, she helps him become a better man so that, when she finally slips away, he will be able to eventually find a loving, committed relationship with someone else. Ryder's Charlotte is a sweet-natured, idealistic soul with just enough quirks to become the most original and interesting character in the film. The 28-year-old Ryder has always been a radiant actress, and she handles her role with just the right amount of caring and wide-eyed innocence that makes her fully believable as a 22-year-old.

As written by screenwriter Burnett, the supporting cast is disappointingly developed and leave either no impression or just enough that it makes you wish they were around for more than a scene or two. The one exception is Elaine Stritch, both humorously biting and touching as Charlotte's grandmother, whom she lives with. The rest of the actors aren't given the chance to do much, and they cause the entire movie to rest upon the shoulders of Ryder and Gere, who seem oddly shut off from the rest of the world because of this problem.

Like all romantic film weepies, director Joan Chen wants nothing more than to pluck the heartstrings of the audience, but somehow, as the cards stack up more and more against the fate of Charlotte, the movie progressively grows ineffectual, and the final scene between Will and Charlotte is ham-handed and oddly indifferent.

"Autumn in New York" is a respectable enough love story that holds so much promise, yet doesn't seem to have had the screenplay kinks worked out before shooting commenced. If anything, the lush cinematography by Changwei Gu is resplendent, lovingly painting Manhattan with a fury of beautiful autumn leaves and marvelously colorful landscapes. If I didn't know any better, I'd think this is what Woody Allen's black-and-white "Manhattan" would have looked like had it been in color. It's just too bad the particulars of the film itself don't even come close to matching that one-of-a-kind 1979 masterpiece.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman