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Film review: New York Stories

Published: Saturday, April 1 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

  • "Life Lessons" is Martin Scorsese's contribution, a stylized tour de force of razzle-dazzle directorial technique, with a wonderful performance by Nick Nolte as an eccentric SoHo artist who paints oversized canvases to loud heavy metal, using a trash can lid as a palette.

    Rosanna Arquette is appealing, if a bit shrill, as his live-in assistant, an aspiring painter herself, who is insecure and flighty and who routinely rejects Nolte's advances and declarations of love.

    The story is about Nolte's pursuit of Arquette, who has fallen for a loutish performance artist, and of Arquette's continual rebuffs. But the film is really about Nolte's artistic passions, which seem to thrive on personal pain.

    Scorsese has developed an incredible 45-minute treatise on the creative mind and its self-destructive side, and Nolte has never been better as the embodiment of both.

    Despite the presence of Scorsese's fascinating style, it never intrudes upon the story, giving the entire film a feeling of effortlessness. And it is the one short film in this trio that probably could have sustained feature length.

  • "Life Without Zoe" is Francis Ford Coppola's contribution, the least of the three films here, and the shortest (33 minutes). A slight, rambling tale about a poor little rich girl who lives in the Sherry Netherlands Hotel and whose parents (Talia Shire, Giancarlo Giannini) are never home.

    So young Zoe (Heather McComb) is alone much of the time, helped with daily chores by the butler (Don Novello, better known as Father Guido Sarducci, in a funny, scene-stealing performance).

    The problem with this story is that it goes nowhere. There is the beginning of a plot device, as Zoe rescues a priceless earring during a robbery and discovers her father may have had an indiscretion, but that also goes nowhere.

    Despite charming performers and some nice moments, this is a flat, lifeless effort and rather a disappointment after Scorcese's triumph.

  • "Oedipus Wrecks" more than makes up for "Zoe's" failure, however, and Woody Allen fans will be happy to know this is a comedy and Allen himself stars.

    Allen is a 50-year-old Jewish lawyer with a domineering mother - the ultimate stereotypical Jewish Mother. But you don't have to be Jewish to identify with his angst at being a successful adult attorney and still being told by his mother that he doesn't know how to run his life.

    So Allen secretly wishes his mother would "disappear," and one day he gets his wish in a rather unexpected manner. The result of that occurrence is also unexpected.

    To reveal what happens in this comic fantasy, essentially an extended Jewish Mother joke, would spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that there are some hilarious sight gags and one-liners, and an ending that is both ironic and perfectly satisfying.

    This is essentially a one-joke film, and Allen, who initiated this anthology project, rightly knew it needed to be a short, not a feature. The result, 40 minutes in length, perfectly suits the material.

    Mia Farrow has a rather small part without much to do here, but Mae Questel as Allen's mother and Julie Kavner as a looney psychic are thoroughly delightful. And the best news, of course, is that Allen is back in rare form.

    "New York Stories" is rated PG, for profanity and implied sex in the first and third films.