If at first you partially succeed, repeat the formula. Following the modest success of his 2006 omnibus film Paris, Je T’aime, in which 18 directors filmed a short tale of love set in a different arrondisement of the French capital, producer Emmanuel Benbihy replicates the experiment with predictably modest results. Transplanting the low-rent concept—each director must confine his segment to a single neighborhood, focus on a “love encounter, broadly defined,” and complete shooting in two days—from the City of Lights to the Big Apple, the 11 segments on offer in New York, I Love You are decidedly more miss than hit.
Part of the problem lies in the personnel. Whereas Paris featured such first-rate filmmakers as Olivier Assayas and Gus Van Sant, the current project has to make do with the directorial talents of Mira Nair, Joshua Marston, and, yes, Natalie Portman. Nor does every filmmaker seem comfortable working within the short running time they’re allotted. In Nair’s segment, for example, which captures a sliver of imagined romance between a soon-to-bed wed Hassidic woman (Portman) and a Gujarti Jain (Irrfan Khan) as they transact a diamond sale, the limited scope of the central encounter precludes sufficient development of even such a tentative love.
Which is why, perhaps, several of the filmmaker’s envision their segments as elaborate jokes culminating in surprise twist punchlines. The best of these shaggy-dog sequences, directed by the Israeli-French filmmaker Yvan Attal, finds Ethan Hawke making an increasingly aggressive push to bed a not-unamused young woman he meets outside of a restaurant before she reveals a certain piece of information that renders his request laughable. The tables are similarly turned in Brett Ratner’s segment, though far more offensively. In a sequence that has already asked us to laugh at a young woman in a wheelchair, the comic payoff doesn’t so much undermine male assumption (as did Attal’s) as serve to render the adolescent hero’s sexual fantasy complete.
Stylistically, too, the segments are a mixed lot, ranging from the impressionistic cutting and sound design of Allen Hughes’s offering—in which the thoughts and sensations of two lovers are isolated, disjointed, and recombined to jarringly lyrical effect—to Benoit Debie’s lovely long-shot photography, flooding the screen with a white glow for Shekhar Kapur’s segment, his unhurried framings offering a welcome respite from the more aggressive aesthetic of many of the preceding sequences. Smoothing over a potentially discordant range of tone and style, Benbihy stitches the film together with a series of transitional sequences which offer brief glimpses of the movie’s characters interacting with characters from other segments and which give a larger unity to the film’s world.
Still, for a project that aims to be so location specific, most of the segments seem largely isolated from their nominal settings. Characters may talk about how they’re experiencing a unique New York moment (would any actual New Yorker say something like that?), and the film may have fun using recognizable locations (a couple meet for a date at popular Greenwich Village bar the Slaughtered Lamb), but with the exception of Marston’s Brighton Beach-set segment, much of the film could be happening anywhere. When you’re taken in by the obvious charm and humor of a segment like Kapur or Attal’s, this hardly seems to matter, but when you’re suffering through the liberal pieties of Portman’s offering, which finds a black father enjoying his white daughter’s company in Central Park, and to the miscomprehension of passersby, it somehow seems considerably less forgivable.