Woody Allen pays tribute to rain and romance in this refreshingly whimsical New York comedy

Words by John McKeown

“Who loves the sun? Not everyone,” according to Brooklynite Lou Reed on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded album. Certainly Gatsby Welles (Timotheé Chalamet), the central character of Woody Allen’s latest comedy-drama, is no sun lover. “I come into my own under cloudy skies” is one typically lugubrious quip. Many of us do, and indeed, you might well divide people into those who love the rain and those who see nothing but the fifth grey horseman of the Apocalypse as soon as the sun clouds over. Though they don’t of course; rain-haters tend not to indulge in such Romantic fancies. Which is the whole point of Allen’s latest: the importance of finding someone who is on your rain-swept wavelength. It is, of course, one of the writer-director’s perennial themes, but Allen’s writing is particularly fresh in this latest New York-set venture. 

It isn’t, and couldn’t be, the grittily panoramic New York of Manhattan (1979), Annie Hall (1977), Broadway Danny Rose (1984) or even Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). This is the New York of the congenitally wealthy —Gatsby is a rich kid, though far from spoiled—of soft-toned, expansive, plush interiors, movie-star sized apartments, spotless bars, and open-plan homes. But Allen’s camerawork locates us deftly within each space, with New York suggested by the often sun-lit rain outside and brought into sharper, more immediate focus by the dialogue. 

As when Gatsby, having left his college girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning), a bubbly, excitable cineaste, interviewing famed indie auteur Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) for the college magazine, has gone to visit Hunter (Will Rogers), his elder brother. Allen has us waiting in Hunter’s wide, Kubrickian foyer when Gatsby steps in off the street, and we float like a disembodied fly-on-the-wall toward the minimalist French-windows as the pair make themselves comfortable. Hunter soon begins unloading a problem of wedding-threatening proportions he has with Lily (Annaleigh Ashford), his fiancé. Hunter’s difficulty is innocuous and laughable, typically Allen, with a true-to-life sting. 

For sheer slow-panned beauty, one of the most stylishly sensuous scenes in this increasingly fraught rainy day occurs when Gatsby sits at the piano with—you guessed it—the rain, pouring like a disarmed Niagara somewhere beyond the plush curtains, and sings “Everything Happens To Me”, an old Sinatra tune, in gently melancholic tones. In the droop of a lock from Gatsby’s unkempt mop of hair we’re in the bedroom where Chan (Selena Gomez) is changing out of her wet clothes and we move in stealthily to see, or rather feel, how this rather brusque young socialite is affected by the distant lilt of Gatsby’s voice. 

It’s a beautiful moment, a perfect blending of wetly-sonorous light, velvet-toned shade, and the growingly pensive movements of a young girl. Gomez turns in a very considered, increasingly endearing performance as the younger sister of Gatsby’s ex-girlfriend. She had a crush on Gatsby when he was dating her sister, and though some of that feeling is still there, she’s not particularly keen to have it reignited. Though, as Gatsby says, “this city has its own agenda.” 

And of course the city’s voice is Woody Allen’s, or rather the Woody Allen Persona. A voice as sharp, insightful, and as sardonic as ever, and there are plenty of one-liners as well-aimed as the spurt of dirty kerb-water from the wheel of a New York yellow cab. Sometimes the lines are quite aggressive. Gatsby, reflecting bitterly on Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), a shallow movie star Ashleigh, in quest of Pollard who has gone AWOL in protest at his own movie, has gotten entangled with, concludes that “when he offered to set himself on fire in protest at climate change they should’ve let him.” It’s far from the sharpest line in the film but the contrast between the sudden horrible image of burning flesh and the youthful freshness of its deliverer is highly effective. 

Chalamet has the Woody Persona’s querulous intonation to a tee, while bringing his own oddly magnetic epicene heaviness to the character, with some of the body-language he uses as Henry V in The King (2019) visible in Gatsby’s hangdog poses. The main characters—including Pollard’s restive producer Davidoff (Jude Law)—are all mouthpieces for aspects of the Woody Persona, but they’re as far from being mere puppets as Diane Keaton was or Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters. The student director, Josh (Griffin Newman), on whose set Gatsby meets Chan, is—I hope intentionally—a dead-ringer for the young Allen, a real bespectacled, diffident, chip off the old block. As if, like Hitchcock, Allen was visiting his movie to give his actors his blessing, in the flesh. 

Ashleigh is certainly an inspired Fanning creation, almost as disarmingly dizzy as one of Diane Keaton’s early Allen characters. Explaining her social position to Pollard she’s quick to insist that her family’s “not part of the one per-cent, we’re strictly Episcopalian.” But while Ashleigh is a constant on-screen delight, we also see the moral fragility lurking beneath the beguiling enthusiasms of this deceptively independent-minded character. 

There isn’t quite the degree of neurotic urgency to events as when Allen himself is one of the characters. Though, like that insistent rain against the windows and windshields of cars, we can feel him in every character and situation. And the lack is more than compensated for by the steadily increasing suspense. Ashleigh and Gatsby are supposed to meet at The Waldorf Hotel, or is it the Carlyle? — for his bourgeois mother’s autumn charity gala—but Ashleigh, busily tracking down the possibly suicidal auteur, can’t keep it in her head and the pair are increasingly blown off course for their reunion at this swanky event. Chance rules the day, bringing revelations and surprises. 

But behind the seeming chaos lies old New York, with its banked-up sour-sweet wisdom, its head in the pregnant clouds, its feet in the rain-soaked greenery of Central Park. Where Gatsby’s romantic fate awaits, at least for a while. Corny? Sentimental? No. “Romance with a sardonic lilt” as only Woody Allen, a rain man to his fingertips, can play it.      

A Rainy Day in New York is available on UK VOD from 5 June 2020.

John McKeown

By John McKeown

John McKeown is a freelance arts journalist and writer based in Prague. He was theatre critic for the Irish Daily Mail and The Irish Independent, and has also written for The Irish Times, The Irish Examiner, Prager Zeitung and Exeunt Magazine. His poetry has been published by Ireland’s Salmon Press and Waterloo Press in the UK.