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Autumn in New York

Thus glibly opines John (Anthony LaPaglia), philosophical bartender and best friend to playboy protagonist and famed New York restaurateur, Will Keane (Richard Gere). She (Winona Ryder) is Charlotte: willowy, twenty-two years old and diagnosed with one of those rare terminal diseases that’s bound to put a damper on any situation. He’s nearing 50. Which makes it a May-September romance that just may not see the fall..

Furthermore, he is no good. And she’s an absolute angel; well, she will be one very shortly.

But love springs eternal, as is so often the case in movies bearing this premise. Perhaps it has something to do with taking the word “forever” out of the equation that makes it so appealing. For Charlotte and Will are an item. But for how long? Not even her doctor (Mary Beth Hurt) knows for sure. So writer Alison Burnett generously gives her heroine the customary year (maybe) — enough to see each season one final time at the side of her first and last lover.

Yes, it’s as maudlin as all that. A full four-handkerchief affair with nicely emotive scenes of New York handsomely captured by cinematographer Changwei Gu. And the folks who sop up this sort of stuff wouldn’t have it any other way. Because this isn’t about fine filmmaking or great storytelling. Destined for a long career on the Romance Channel, it’s about grand commiseration set to celluloid, a venerable genre unto itself. Commonly known as the tearjerker, it avails itself of the popularly held notion that the distaff half more readily understands the therapeutic benefits of a good cry.

Long a motion picture staple, and unabashedly referred to as the ladies film before Women’s Lib enlightened our mode of classification, it has in recent years fallen out of favour with general audiences. But has it really? Or is it just that modern tastes (read, cosmopolitan) require movie directors to camouflage our feature-length soap operas in so-called sophisticated garb? Which doubtless results in less long sobs for us and a whole host of filmic folderol pretending to be what it is not.

But if honesty counts, then Autumn in New York is to be acknowledged. There’s little pretence here, at least not until the, er, bitter end. A shameless throwback, recalling about thirty percent of everything Bette Davis did, it is what it is. And director Joan Chen, while exhibiting no special flair for telling a tale, is to be credited for dauntlessly proceeding headlong into the gooey mush. Plus she doesn’t cop out when the going gets tough.

But what really allows this movie to wear its heart on its sleeve while still maintaining a semblance of respectability are the solid performances contributed by Miss Ryder and Mr. Gere. Starring as the star-crossed lovers, they navigate skilfully through the mawkish plot ruminations. And though the clich?s still run rampant, both actors manage to impart a contemporary spin to the doings. Which ostensibly makes Autumn In New York a second rate Love Story for a new generation.

Exuding more sex appeal than most husbands and boyfriends care to hear about, Richard Gere sports a long greying mane in his modern take on Casanova. He is poor, poor Will Keane. And though his visage is spread across magazine covers as our saga begins, thus far his celebrity and wealth have not led him to true love. Those who have witnessed his womanising reign over the past two decades venture that the remarkably well-preserved playboy has made a deal with the Devil; that there is a horrific picture of him mouldering in the attic.

All of which makes you wonder. Even when judging the film on its own terms, there’s a credibility problem. Forget about how overly sentimental this scenario is. That’s a given. But for just a moment consider Charlotte’s choice for a final lover. Because if this doomed gal is really the poetry-spouting altruist we’re led to believe she is, then why would she want to spend her precious remaining days with this self-obsessed Lothario? Slick as this wolf is, he isn’t sheepish about his true nature.

Granted, there is a prevailing theory regarding the thing some women have for bad boys. Combine their romantic and motherly natures, mix in the taboo factor, and the illusion of taming the wild stallion is purportedly quite intoxicating. But that can’t be the case with beatific Charlotte. She couldn’t possibly be interested in such mortal folly. No sir. Nothing less than complete redemption for her beau is what Charlotte is really after. Loving her and, alas, tragically losing her, is the only thing that can make a man out of Will. Hence by making like Jean d’Arc, the supposedly selfless lass just may be perpetrating the most indulgent fantasy of them all. And while we can stand the gush, wading through all the nobility is a bit too much.

But it matters not. Director Chen’s film has its ready-made audience. And it’s not nearly as bad as some had suspected when MGM declined to screen it in advance for critics. Thus previously hesitant viewers in need of a good boohoo may want to reconsider. Because with Autumn in New York, sappiness is in season.

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