Although mired in the most unsavory traditions of 21st-century male buddy films, New York City Serenade—the majority of which inexplicably takes place outside of its geographic namesake—possesses a poorly explored but fecund meta-analysis of juvenile semi-stardom that demands a more sensitive treatment. Feebly dramatizing two young adult friends’ metamorphosis from puerile fecklessness to putative maturity, the plot mostly consists of the pals’ misadventures: first at a frat house party where every fleshy gag can be preemptively delineated, then at a small-time film festival where a dismal short subject produced by the protagonists on the cheap is screening. It’s wispily rendered formula, ineffectually buttressed by sophomoric laughs and a disingenuously sober denouement, but lurking impishly in the film’s subtext is a subtle commentary on the destiny of careers erected on American Pie and Scooby Doo sequels.
The two leads are tepidly, almost languorously inhabited by Freddie Prinze Jr. as the recently dumped, sadsack, wannabe director ever-teetering on the precipice of “getting a life,” and a Mephistophelean goatee-sporting Chris Klein as the conniving, alcoholic, ne’er-do-well consistently tempting his counterpart into turpitude. Their paltry attempts at raucousness early on, such as a scene where a shirtless, seductive Klein mounts a standing lamp, can be read as either failed comedy—which is the likely critical interpretation—or searing, self-critical pathos. This unsettling undercurrent intensifies as the duo visits the undisclosed location of the film festival; though he does little other than toe-dip into industry satire, writer-director Frank Whaley there delivers Wallace Shawn as the recipient of a prestigious lifetime achievement award (hilariously far-fetched when considered after the fact) and a sound technician who views actors and screenplays as mere subordinates to the aural majesty of film (a stereotypical contrivance, perhaps, but how often do lower-rung production techies get poked fun at?).
Add to that an unintentionally tragic epilogue wherein we observe Prinze’s character blossoming into a director of lucrative commercials, and Serenade seems a far more incisive paean to the copious dreams deferred of Los Angeles. It even comes complete with a Jon Brion-inspired soundtrack staunchly determined to wring profundity from four-note themes for reverse piano, mellotron, and glockenspiel.