Reading “Slaves of New York” by Tama Janowitz, some of whose stories ran first in the New Yorker, it’s possible to imagine one or two directors who might make something of their trendy slightness. But James Ivory is not the first name to rush to mind; not even the hundred-and-first.
So brace yourself. The impeccable team of Ishmail Merchant and Ivory have turned from such usual sources as Henry James (“The Bostonians,” “The Europeans”) and E.M. Forster (“A Room With a View,” “Maurice”), whose works are as raucous as a furled umbrella, to the messy, unfettered savagery of Janowitz and her clamorous loft-living lowlifes. The result (at the AMC Century 14) is exactly as peculiar as you might imagine.
First, the film makers have let Janowitz be her own adapter, always a risky business and even more so here since she has taken a steamroller to her already affectless Lower Manhattanites. All of them but Bernadette Peters’ Eleanor emerge--to use one of Kurt Vonnegut’s more succinct character descriptions--as ugly, stupid and boring. Peters, who can never be boring, is merely waifish and masochistic. And miscast.
Stash Stotz (Adam Coleman Howard), whose precious downtown apartment Eleanor shares, is a surly little creep somewhere in his early 20s. That’s a switch from the original stories where all these pop painters, jewelry designers or performance artists manque were hovering around 30, depressed that they weren’t yet millionaires. Stash’s callowness adds an extra, unneeded layer to Eleanor’s masochism, since Bernadette Peters is clearly a grown-up and this kid is clearly a bullying numskull.
When we meet Stash he is holding a flea between his thumb and forefinger, refusing to let Eleanor enter their apartment until she leaves all her “contaminated” clothes in the hall after walking their dog. It would take a heroic amount of charm to overcome an entrance like this, but in his downy first mustache, Howard has no charisma and no discernible acting talent either.
However, in this crowd it’s hardly noticeable. In the film’s fortune cookie characterizations, obnoxious is the one word all of them have in common. These are people who whine endlessly about their poverty but never take anything but cabs. Obnoxious covers super-macho painter Marley Manatello (Nick Corri), who yearns to go to Rome to create his Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Woman, or maybe just stay in New York and use Eleanor as his naked model for La Christa. Or Marley’s best friend, abstract expressionist Sherman McVittle (Charles McCaughan) and his lady love, the poisonous Daria (Madeleine Potter), who spends the movie sniping at Eleanor and sleeping with Stash and every other man south of 34th Street who might get her a gallery show.
Neither explained nor developed, these characters pop up to posture in little frail vignettes, then vanish again. They become a maddening, pointless backdrop for a story as banal as any soap opera, no matter how trendy the surface. Director Ivory doesn’t so much ride herd on this scene as float unprotestingly on its surface, finally overwhelmed by hats, sets, shoes, banana curls or any quantity of girls with enameled eyes.
From time to time, Ivory splits his screen or places one scene translucently on top of another, but the effect feels less like inventiveness than a desperate attempt to appear hip. It’s like one of those eye-widening flights from common sense when someone like Renata Tebaldi decides to get down and sing boogie-woogie: not a pretty picture.
Against it, Eleanor, who faints at nightclubs and fashions ill-made fantasy hats out of trash-can salvage, totters about, fetchingly cloying and almost mortifying in her self-abasement. The fiercely satisfying Mercedes Ruhl, who appears late and leaves early, is Samantha, a fellow hat designer, someone who will listen to her mewling about her great love for that oaf, Stash.
Janowitz fans will be thrilled to find her, droning on bravely, as a reclusive party-goer. And Mary Beth Hurt, who compressed such a world of observation and satiric wit into her role in “Parents,” is again marvelous as gallery owner Ginger Booth, although her moment is over much too soon.
What gave Janowitz’s stories their charm--in the eyes of some--was the pointed flipness of her narrative voice commenting on the absurdities at hand. In adapting herself, Janowitz has stripped away that ironic layer, leaving us to take these disagreeable hyperstrivers straight. Meanwhile, Ivory, a man who doesn’t know the territory and seems to regard it with chilly disdain, has no editorial comment to add.
“Slaves of New York” (MPAA-rated: R) becomes heaven for the costumer and the makeup artists who have gone about their business, making pretty women grotesque in the prescribed manner of the day and the place. Shirley Temple’s mother would swoon at the sight of this many ringlets. They won’t keep you from stone boredom, but they do add a certain unhealthy fascination to the proceedings, just enough to keep you awake.