[Written for Film.com]
Like most movies, Autumn in New York has a way of stating its themes in dialogue, so we don’t miss the point. In one scene, hip restaurateur Richard Gere asks his best buddy why he should continue a relationship with a much younger woman with a serious illness. The buddy, played by Anthony LaPaglia, shrugs in the down-to-earth way of movie best buddies and says, “Maybe it makes a sad girl happy and a desperate guy think.”
That is indeed the idea of Autumn in New York, and the rest of the film is nearly as skeletal in its pursuit of this theme. This is a tale of the redemption of a rogue, with Gere’s 48-year-old playboy enlightened by his affair with a 22-year-old hatmaker, played by Winona Ryder. The film uses Gere’s cold, small-eyed presence to evoke an unrepentant womanizer, and Gere himself seems eager to show the guy’s heartless zigzags from lay to lay.
Ryder, meanwhile, beams beautifully, as this is a disease that has no outward manifestations. She’s more centered here than she has been in some of her recent performances, and despite the lack of natural chemistry with Gere, the two actors work hard to find some kind of real intimacy in their scenes. Presumably Joan Chen, in her second directing gig (after the powerful Xiu Xiu—The Sent Down Girl), had something to do with creating the film’s somber, tasteful mood. The age difference, by the way, is dealt with, although the movie threatens to go in a weird Hitchcockian direction when we learn that Gere also dated Ryder’s mother, twenty-five years earlier. Ryder’s granny (old trouper Elaine Stritch) assures her, and us, that the two never slept together, which doesn’t sound much like the Gere character we see.
Joan Chen works a few formal ideas into her approach, including the motif of seeing people behind glass, nets, beads. But her efforts tend to pale beside the abundance of evening dresses and topcoats and fancy apartments, giving the film the tired look of yet another Manhattan romance. The best scene has nothing to do with the central romance, but with Gere’s meeting a mystery figure, played by a fine, unfussy, pretty actress named Vera Farmiga (she’s in The Opportunists). Chen’s stillness is just right for a scene of potentially melodramatic revelation.
Finally, though, the melodrama does take over. Early on, Ryder has a nice speech about how her illness actually is a boon for Gere: he can enjoy their affair, then turn it into a heart-rending story for future conquests. The truth of this observation stings. But isn’t Autumn in New York using the same convenient out? The lessons of a tragic love story are contained, bittersweet, and easy. The real messy stuff happens when you have to actually live with a person, working out the details without a doomy-romantic overlay. Spending an autumn in New York is the simple part, but the rest of the year gets more complicated. Let’s see a movie about that.