MOVIE REVIEW : 'N.Y. Stories' Is Apple of Their Eyes

Times Film Critic

Three New York-savvy directors take aim at the Big Apple in "New York Stories" (selected theaters) and give it their best shot. In the overview of these tender craftsmen, the city emerges as the nurturing ground for passion, for privilege and as no place whatever for a little privacy.

For Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, whose short films concern the essential nature of an artist and the essential nature of a family, respectively, this is classic stuff. For Francis Coppola, who's made a jet-set fairy tale from a trifle co-written with his 17-year-old daughter, Sofia, it's a breathtakingly pretty embarrassment. Eh, two like this out of three is still great odds.

We open in the rich tones of Scorsese's "Life Lessons," and the vast loft inhabited by one of the giants of the New York painting scene, Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte)--not called "The Lion" for nothing. He's well aware of the voltage he generates, sexually and commercially; he dispenses it as he does his talent, prodigiously, and with full knowledge of its impact.

But now, with a show due in three weeks, he's in the exquisite agony of the artist-procrastinator. It's a state given an even keener edge by the defection of his lover-assistant-pupil Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), who's wandered off to be trifled with by a performance artist (!). It has left Lionel a basket case and, on her return, uncharacteristically pliant.

Richard Price's screenplay, the film's notes explain, was inspired by the elements of Dostovesky's short novel "The Gambler," as well as by the diary of his protegee and one-time mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, with the art world substituted for the literary one. It's a terrific script. Not only does it sound the way we imagine real artists talk, but there's hardly a nuance of obsessive behavior in it that doesn't ring true: Price might be reworking the classic Jackson Pollack story about the full year he had to complete a mural for Peggy Guggenheim, and the all-night frenzy of creation he went through the night before it was due, begining at midnight and ending at sunrise, with one of his major works pulsating from her wall.

That same intensity infuses "Life Lessons," making it a delight on every level. There's Nolte's full-out power as the loving Lion, agonized, authentic, demoniac, funny and smothering by turns. (Actually, Nolte's creation is so strong that to end the piece on the note that it does feels almost like a trivializing of the character.) There's the restless, prowling camera of Nestor Almendros, irising in, Truffaut-like, on a warmly remembered detail of Paulette's person, or peering over the top of a canvas at the slashing, brooding Lion at work.

There is also the maddening look-but-don't-touch attitude of Arquette as a pupil who's grown out of her role. There is Kristi Zea's production design, which sings in its every detail of the New York art scene, and Thelma Schoonmaker's lovely editing. Finally, there's the music: the Lion pulls his inspiration from the "masters," Procol Harum, Django Reinhardt, the "Nessun Dorma" of Puccini, all played at lease-breaking levels.

We are pitched from this density to the weightlessness of "Life Without Zoe," a Coppola family conceit of calculated disingenuousness. However, that's only one of the problems facing this pretty piffle. Lodged somewhere on "Fairy Tale Theater," or as an example of how one half of 1% of New York lives, it might still be cloying, but sandwiched between two solid stories it's in terrible trouble.

The screenplay is like a variation of De Maupassant's "The Necklace" written by the precocious Eloise of the Plaza. This time it's bossy 12-year-old Zoe of the Sherry Netherland (Heather McComb), a true creature of New York, who wears Chanel hats to school and bullies room service into rounds of strawberry daiquiries for her classmates while they pore over the latest Paris Vogue.

Pop (Giancarlo Giannini) is a world-class flutist, therefore gone a lot; writer-photographer mom (Talia Shire) roams the globe, leaving Zoe to be clucked over by the Sherry's staff and to yearn for a real family. "Zoe"' seems to want to say something about loneliness amid surfeit and a child's cleverness in reconciling her family, but it has a hard time with a script this flimsy and erratic, and moments like the one when Zoe breaks up her parents' reconciliation kiss with "Cut!" do little to cement her charm. The Sherry is the Coppola compound, East; does he have nothing deeper to convey about the ironies of life de luxe in today's New York than this Fabrege egg of a film?

Fortunately, through the lenses of Vittoria Storaro and the production design of Dean Tavoularis the segment is meltingly lovely, reaching some sort of peak at a costume ball for kids given by the richest boy in the world. Here, the Cirque de Soleil is an entr'acte and, in the quarters of a sheik's wife, silver helium pillows float like shining punctuation marks. The sequence just doesn't have a brain--or a heart.

It bottoms out as Zoe drops off a promised second batch of Hershey's kisses to an (unseen) homeless man living in a cardboard box in front of the Plaza, prompting him to mutter, " She's why I love New York!" To quote from Mr. Nolte's character only minutes before, it's enough to make you go up on the roof and howl like a gut-shot dog.

There'll be no howling over "Oedipus Wrecks," the jewel of the piece. Can you remember how long it's been since we've seen Woody Allen run ? Or wear funny hats? Even more than Allen's other films, this one, which is a perfect balance of length, story and atmosphere, should be seen, not read.

Seems fair enough to tell you that Mia Farrow is safely on board again, as is cinematographer Sven Nykvist, editor Susan Morse and production designer Santo Loquasto. But you'll have to see it to find out what happens to his mother. Know, however, that in another of Allen's triumphs of casting, she is played by Mae Questel, the silvery little voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. And that she is absolutely marvelous, an assessment she would probably accept with aplomb.

Also to be unearthed, like the treasure that she is, is Julie Kavner, whom Allen secreted slightly off center-screen in both "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Radio Days." She comes into her own here as a medium who has a crystal as big as the Ritz and a little difficulty fitting the earpieces of her sensible glasses under her somewhat occult headband. Don't waste time reading--drop the paper. Go. Go.

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