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New York, I Love You

A Sequel That Improves on its Predecessor

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Producer Emmanuel Benbihy, who scored a modest arthouse success three years ago with Paris, je t'aime, an romance-centered anthology film that mixed 18 filmmakers with Paris’ 18 arrondissements (districts), is back with New York, I Love You, the second in a planned “Cities of Love” series (Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai are next). Unsurprisingly for an anthology film, the shorts range from the slight and superficial to the insightful and reflective.

Scaling back the number of short films from 18 to 11, thus giving each short more screen time, as well as structuring New York, I Love You as one overarching, interweaving story (characters and storylines constantly cross paths), results in a deeper, richer experience than its predecessor.

In the first, unimpressive short (thankfully not a sign of things to come), a pickpocket, Ben (Hayden Christensen, faking his way through a New York accent), crosses paths with a beautiful young woman, Molly (Rachel Bilson), and her possessive, older lover, Garry (Andy Garcia), a NYU professor who seems to have watched The Godfather one too many times. It’s an early stumble, but luckily it’s not indicative of the quality shorts to follow. In the second short, a young Hasidic woman, Rifka (Natalie Portman), finds an unlikely connection (and even unlikelier intimacy) with an Indian diamond seller, Mansuhkhbai (Irrfan Khan).

The third short centers on the romance between a music composer, David (Orlando Bloom) and Camille (Christina Ricci), a woman he’s heard on his cell phone, but never seen in person. To spur David past his creative block, Camille’s employer suggests he read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov for inspiration, which prompts minor soul searching and the possibility of romance between two relative strangers. In the fourth vignette, a semi-desperate writer (Ethan Hawke) tries to seduce a woman (Maggie Q) he meets outside a bar. A similar encounter inside a bar between an older man and woman, Alex (Chris Cooper) and Anna (Robin Wright Penn) illuminates the drawbacks of long-term relationships.

True to the classical short-story format, the payoff undermines what we thought we knew about the characters, both in the preceding stories and the short films that follow. Shifting to teenage characters, Brett Ratner’s entry focuses on a teenager (Anton Yelchin) ditched by his longtime girlfriend (Blake Lively) on prom night for an NYU film student. His local pharmacist, Mr. Riccoli (James Caan), offers his single daughter (Olivia Thirlby) as an alternative prom date. Although it has the obligatory short-story twists, this vignette has minimal replay value beyond the young cast.

In another short, Gus (Bradley Cooper) and Lydia (Drea de Matteo) contemplate whether their one-night stand might lead to something more meaningful and long-lasting. A departure in tone, period, and subject matter marks the next Henry James-inspired short. An ex-opera singer, Isabelle (Julie Christie), returns to a time-lost hotel in the Upper East Side. She quickly develops a relationship with the disabled Jacob (Shia LaBeouf).

Directed by Natalie Portman, the next short returns New York, I Love You to a contemporary setting. Dante (Carlos Acosta) spends a day with a young girl, Teya (Taylor Geare) in Central Park as passersby try to figure out the nature of their relationship. The final revelation is all the more poignant for what it says about the biases and prejudices of both New Yorkers and moviegoing audiences. The penultimate entry involves an aging, alcoholic painter (Ugur Yücel) who becomes infatuated with a Chinese herbalist (Qi Shu). Drawing on clichés about (failed) artists and (beautiful Asian) muses, it’s New York, I Love You’s shallowest, least engaging entry.

New York, I Love You comes full circle in its exploration and its many permutations (romantic and platonic) in the last short film. An octogenarian couple, Abe (Eli Wallach) and Mitzie (Cloris Leachman), take an arduous stroll along the Brooklyn Boardwalk on their wedding anniversary. The mix of exasperation (with each other, their failing health, their children, the changing neighborhood) and genuine affection offers a semi-illuminating glimpse into the natural progression of romantic love into companionate love.

Unlike Paris, je t'aime, tied together by theme and setting and nothing else, Benbihy and his collaborators decided to use an intricate, overlapping structure for New York, I Love You. Stories flow in and out of other stories, picking up with characters introduced in a brief, earlier scene, and then flow into another vignette. Sometimes the characters take center stage, however briefly, in their own stories, but just as often they appear in only one or two brief scenes, or cross paths with a videographer/video artist, Zoe (Emilie Ohana), ultimately making New York, I Love You significantly more satisfying than its predecessor.