It’s always a challenge to create drama out of merely nostalgia for an inaccessible past, but the tonal confusion of Harvey Wang’s debut feature, The Last New Yorker, also speaks to the absurd emotionalism underlying much of the longing for a pre-Giulianified New York City. You all know the argument: Once Rudy Giuliani purged Manhattan of the Squeegee men, and Disney stores replaced sex shops, good ol’ “authentic” New York died and Corporate Playground New York took its place—as if a similar process hadn’t occurred throughout the rest of America. Well, Lenny (Dominic Chianese) and Ruben (Dick Latessa), the inseparable geezers who anchor Wang’s comedy, are just about fed up.
They still frequent their favorite family-owned Manhattan sandwich shops, bars, shoe stores, and haberdasheries, but all their old haunts are facing the immediate threat of corporate takeovers. Lenny objects to the scaffolding that seems to encase every other city block. Ruben’s so fed up with corporatized NYC that he wants to move to Alabama—though only if Lenny will join him. But for all their carping about the present, would this cranky duo have been at all comfortable strolling along a hooker-lined 42nd street in the ‘70s? With a surer directorial hand, Wang might have been able to pull off this geriatric bromance as a paean to a New York gone by, but because we never learn that much about these characters, it’s hard to understand exactly what they—or the city in general—have lost, if anything. Instead, what we’re left with is Grumpy Old Mensches.
Chianese gives Lenny, by far the more prominent of the duo, a slightly aggressive charisma. He’s clearly a charmer but has never been married. He knows all the right things to say to women but genuinely acts as if an artistic soul (Kathleen Chalfant) he’s met on the bus is the first woman he’s ever loved. He’s saved up enough money to invest but lives in a squalid one-room Brooklyn apartment. Wang never accounts for these discrepancies, and Chianese only ever plays his part with a wink and a wry smile, even as Lenny enters truly dark territory when he attempts suicide after losing his fortune, then sets up a Ponzi scheme to swindle a gullible storeowner out of $5,000. Is this supposed to be comedy? Wang apparently thinks so, even right down to the inclusion of a bouncy jazz score that seems ripped from an episode of Seinfeld and could easily fit in with a laugh track.
Actually, the whole film seems like a sitcom blown up to big-screen proportions, with dialogue given far greater consideration than the images. Most of the conversation scenes between Lenny and Ruben are staged as they’re walking down a street, a walk-and-talk style that clearly owes more to Aaron Sorkin than Richard Linklater—though Lenny’s discussion of the “transmigration of souls” with Ruben in the first five minutes may give one fleeting hope that Wang is recasting Before Sunrise with two septuagenarian men. No such luck. Instead we’re treated to fogeyisms like “I don’t like it here. It’s dirty, it’s mean, it’s cold. This isn’t our city anymore!” New York City hasn’t been dissed like this since Woody Allen started making movies in London.