Completed in 2018, and shelved after sexual-abuse allegations resurfaced against its writer-director, Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” has finally arrived on digital streaming platforms with the bare minimum of fanfare. Its delayed release has stretched so far into 2020—the prolific, undaunted Allen has already shot another film before this one ever saw a U.S. projector— that I was starting to think “A Rainy Day in New York” might become a “lost film,” like Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Dried.”
In fact, its filmmaker is lost in the directional sense, floundering in a world that has left him behind. “A Rainy Day in New York” feels like it was made 40 years ago, not two. Allen’s most charitable apologists will call it an old-fashioned homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, like Allen’s moderately superior 2016 feature “Café Society.” But it’s more accurate to say that the beleaguered director is out of step with the zeitgeist, a stubborn dinosaur making movies for other stubborn dinosaurs.
The most prominent embodiment of this musty sensibility is the movie’s rootless protagonist, affectedly named Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet), a college student in upstate New York, who dresses like a tweedy professor, smokes from a beatnik-era cigarette holder, and listens to vintage bebop and standards. He’s also a habitual gambler who never seems to lose; at the film’s outset, he has just won $20,000 playing poker or, as he tells his girlfriend, Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), “I just scored 20 big ones.”
It would be one thing if only Gatsby were an anachronistic caricature out of Damon Runyan, but the entire feature is populated by archetypes frozen in time. Every character, regardless of age, speaks in references to ‘40s movies and classical literature, as if they all teleported from some cosmopolitan postwar bohemia. It doesn’t take a sleuth to figure out Allen’s game here: These are his cultural touchstones, embalmed in a mothballed past, and he’s too myopic to explore anything outside of his navel.
Thus, we meet a cast of Allen surrogates like Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), a suffering director of misunderstood art films, and Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), his equally suffering screenwriter, a disheveled nebbish in the midst of a marital crisis. We’re introduced to both through Ashleigh, a 21-year-old student journalist from the same college as Gatsby; she has arrived in Manhattan, with Gatsby in tow, to interview Roland for the school paper, and, thanks to her winsome naivety, proceeds to tickle the libidos of every red-blooded male she meets.
The actors dutifully do their jobs, which in Fanning’s case means acting out the worst stereotypes of the small-town ingénue in the big city. How was she was smart enough to land this assignment, yet evaporates into a puddle at her first proximity to a talented older (this is Woody Allen, so always older) man? Ashleigh embodies, once again, her creator’s low opinion of women, never more so than her instantly smitten encounter with a sexy movie star (Diego Luna).
Gatsby, too, finds adventure in his solo wanderings of a fairy-tale New York City, hooking up with the younger sister (there’s the older man dynamic again!) of an old flame, played gamely by Selena Gomez. Later, he finds himself arm in arm with a prostitute (Suki Waterhouse) he hires to play a hoax on his elite parents, but by this point even Allen’s most ardent fans must begin to notice the stench of sexism.
The poor escort’s role is mostly to be a sounding board for Gatsby’s first-world malaise, as he bemoans being forced into a cultural education of classical composers, when he just wanted to play Charlie Parker records. “Who?” the prostitute responds, at the reference to the great jazzman, in the shallowest of the movie’s laugh lines. I’m not sure what’s more insulting—the reduction of the film’s women to sex objects, or the sheer unfathomability, to an inveterate mansplainer like Allen, that a hooker would know who Charlie Parker is.
“A Rainy Day in New York” is screening now on Apple TV and Google Play.