It has taken a long while for Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York to become available to Australian viewers. Shot back in 2017, its 2018 global release was cancelled by Amazon at the height of the “Me Too” movement and his contract with the online giant dissolved via a messy lawsuit. Released across Europe in 2019 by a variety of independent distributors, it only now becomes available in Australia in 2020 on a DVD from Defiant! Entertainment.
College student Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet) accompanies his girlfriend Ashleigh Enright (Elle Fanning) to New York for the weekend. She has lined up an interview with a prestigious film director for her college paper, while Gatsby has planned a weekend of activities between them that studiously avoid having to meet his high society mother. When the two are separated within their first hour, they each follow their own path of misadventures through the day.
A Rainy Day in New York is far from peak Allen, but it is still a Woody Allen comedy. In its best moments it is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. In its weakest parts it feels terribly creaky and old-fashioned. The director’s fans will enjoy it for what it is, anyone turned off either by Allen’s prevailing style or by the decades-old accusations of child abuse against him – the revival of which caused this film to be dropped like a hot rock by Amazon – is not going to suddenly be converted to enjoying this picture in particular. It is, for better or worse, an average Woody Allen film; he has made 48 of them since 1966, which is surely an achievement by anyone’s measure.
Rainy Day splits very neatly into what are essentially two films in one. In the first, the intellectual and self-involved Gatsby (his mother is an obsessive literature nut) spends the day increasingly frustrated at his girlfriend’s absence while avoiding his mother’s upper-class literary salon. In the film’s other half, the charming but naive Ashleigh suffers attempts at seduction by not one but three rival suitors: the withdrawn and moody film director Roland Pollard (Liev Shreiber), his long-suffering screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), and movie studio heart throb Francisco Vega (Diego Luna).
It is a strange screenplay that Allen has written here. The dialogue sounds old: not simply like off-cuts from one of his much better 1970s films, but also as if the lead cast of university undergraduates were each more than 50 years old. Gatsby is cursed not simply with a pretentious name but old-fashioned pretentious tastes. The impression he gives, particularly given Chalamet’s performance, is of an irritating snob. Weirdly the screenplay works in his defence, and ultimately takes his side. Meanwhile poor Ashleigh is styled as a foolish and ditzy caricature; an Arizona country girl whom the narrative punishes for not knowing which of New York’s famous hotels are which, or the difference between a Porter lyric and a Shakespeare quote. If each were separated entirely into separate films, both would probably work quite well. Once put side-by-side in the one movie, Gatsby’s intellectual musings make a mockery of Ashleigh’s bright, non-judgemental optimism.
The most remarkable thing happens, however, when Elle Fanning assumes control of her character. It is an exceptional performance on her part, accentuating Ashleigh’s wide-eyed “gosh wow” cadence and transforming her into a proper heroine to root for. Fanning brings a keen comic sense as well, turning all of Ashleigh’s quirks and awkward stumbles into some great scenes of comedy. She is the best thing in the film, and makes her half of the movie by far the most entertaining. Allen may treat his character with what seems like mild contempt, but Fanning absolutely wins her back.
Most of the performances in the film are really good. Allen has a particular gift for casting, and those he invites into his films have a tendency to bring their A-game. Jude Law is engaging as a screenwriter who discovers his wife is having an affair. Liev Schreiber wisely heads in a very different direction than expected as a self-involved director. Cherry Jones plays a knock-out scene as Gatsby’s mother – foreshadowed all movie before finally turning up near the end. A real surprise is Selena Gomez as Chan Tyrell, the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend whom Gatsby bumps into during his day. She is great, despite never really having an impression on me before. I sincerely hope she pursues more roles in future.
Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography makes the film look absolutely magical. In an early scene Gatsby enthuses about New York’s atmosphere when it’s bleak and rainy, and Storaro sells the idea better than any dialogue or speech ever could. This is a fairy tale iteration of the city, glossed over in that romantic intellectual fashion that has driven so many of Allen’s most famous works. With American studios abandoning him, and European financiers now paying for his films – his next film is an Italian/Spanish co-production – this very well may be his final word on the city with which he has always been closely identified.
Rainy Day is not great, but it is good, and the cast do a lot of work to lift it beyond Allen’s moribund and derivative screenplay. It is worth checking out for the acting, and the various bits that do still work – sadly viewers have to also sit through the bits that do not.