Chinese actress Joan Chen has certainly come a long way since reaching these shores over twenty years ago. Born into a family of doctors, Chen started her acting career in her native China at the age of 14 by playing a 'guerilla girl' in a state-produced propaganda film. By her late teens, she had already went on to star in several commercial productions, which culminated in being awarded a best film actress award for her role in "Little Flower". In addition, her quick rise through the ranks of the Chinese film industry earned her the label as the 'Elizabeth Taylor of China'. However, at what seemed to be the pinnacle of her film career in her native China, she followed her parents to New York City in 1981, where they had accepted fellowships at a local hospital.
For the next few years, she attended college at the State University of New York, and eventually went on to study filmmaking at California State University in Northridge. Though she managed to find a few small roles in films and television, her North American film career kicked into high gear when she was then literally 'discovered' while walking through the Lorimar parking lot by producer Dino De Laurentis, who cast Chen in "Tai-Pan". Though the film ultimately tanked, her participation put her on the radar of Hollywood casting agents, which landed her two high-profile roles: her critically-acclaimed performance in "The Last Emperor", and her regular role on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks".
Unfortunately, her acting career saw a major downturn in the years that followed, with forgettable roles in a number of big-budget flops, including "Judge Dredd". With a dearth of decent Asian female roles in Hollywood, Chen decided to go back to school, where she earned a degree in filmmaking and re-emerged into Hollywood as a director. Finally, in 1999, came her directorial debut, "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl", a critically acclaimed, memorable, and very personal film about a girl sent to the countryside for reeducation during the Cultural Revolution.
Chen returns to the director's chair this year with her sophomore effort "Autumn in New York", a decidedly more mainstream offering. Unfortunately, her latest film was mired in controversy in the days leading up to its release, which was triggered by distributor MGM's refusal to grant press screenings, usually a telltale sign of a bad film. The damage was further exacerbated when the 'Page Six' column of the New York Post quoted an attendee at the film's foreign press screening as saying that the film was a 'real turkey', adding credence to the speculation that "Autumn in New York" was a bad film. Fortunately, Chen's second film is not as bad as the negative publicity would lead one to believe. However, "Autumn in New York" is not great either-- at best, it is a passable (and extremely predictable) blend of romance and melodrama that is short on emotion.
As one can deduce from the title, the film takes place in Gotham in the fall. Will Keane (Richard Gere of "Runaway Bride"), a shameless womanizer, is the 50-year old owner of the city's trendiest restaurant. Though he believes himself to be happy, moving aimlessly from one woman's arms to the next, he finds himself oddly smitten by Charlotte (Winona Ryder of "Girl, Interrupted"), a young woman more than a quarter-of-a-century his junior. And as expected, this May-December relationship is fraught with complications, the most pressing of which is the fact that Charlotte is dying from a terminal illness. Will these two lonely New Yorkers find happiness in one another, in what are the twilight years of their lives?
Thematically, the often-done tear-jerker basis for "Autumn in New York" offers a number of interesting possibilities. Unfortunately, scribe Allison Burnett (who got her career started writing "Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight") plays it safe with the material, following the staid and stale conventions of such a romance. In addition to the story's utter predictability (this was one of the few films where I was able to anticipate every plot twist with more than a 90% degree of accuracy), Burnett gives her characters the most mundane and banal things to say, with little being left to interpretation or the imagination. Though Gere and Ryder share some semblance of chemistry, despite the vast chasm between their ages, the superficial dialogue they are forced to utter strains the credibility of their supposed romantic relationship.
Thus, what you end up with is a pretty, but empty-headed valentine to the city that never sleeps. With little meat in the script, Chen is relegated to filling out the running time with music montages (old standards where possible) and picturesque postcard shots of famous New York landmarks. Mind you, with the help of her cinematographer Changwei Gu (who lensed "Hurlyburly" and "Ju Dou"), the images are quite stunning, but pretty pictures alone do not make for a good film-- you need credible characters to care about and a script that not only entertains, but inspires at the same time. Unfortunately, one out of three is not good enough.
In the acting department, Ryder clearly does the better job in trying to make the chemistry work, but the limits of her abilities become quite evident in a couple of scenes. As was seen in "Girl, Interrupted", Ryder's acting deteriorates when she attempts to express outrage (check out the scene where she freaks out in the bathtub), and in this latest film, Ryder's performance begins to waver in her two big 'whig-out' scenes. Meanwhile, Gere does the same bland emoting he illustrated in last year's "Runaway Bride", and there were a number of areas where his character actually comes off as insincere because of this. And as for the most memorable actor in the whole film, that honor would have to go to Anthony LaPaglia ("Summer of Sam") as Will's confidant, who seems at ease with the material and gets some of the best lines.
"Autumn in New York" is a disappointment, considering the potential that actress-turned-director Joan Chen showed with "Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl". Unfortunately, she is saddled with a lackluster script and two actors of limited range, and this is probably the best that she can do. Audience members in search of an old-fashioned romance, especially ones that romanticize New York, may find this film somewhat satisfying, though it is difficult to overcome the film's emotionally cold ending. Hopefully, this is merely a blip in Chen's directing career, and her next offering will more than make up for it.