So it goes on, the eerie productivity of Woody Allen, who outlived his greatness, and might yet outlive his notoriety. However, there are, for the time being, more than enough people out there behaving as if they never liked Annie Hall and affecting not to remember how Allen invented the grammar of romcom and much else: the ending of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, for example, is reminiscent of Allen’s Manhattan.
This latest reshuffling of the Allen themes – and the permutations seem as inexhaustible as Sudokus – has come out on streaming platforms and some reopened cinemas in various international territories, after Amazon pulled the plug on the director’s five-picture deal. And … it’s not as bad as you might think, but the fade-to-black that precedes the final credits brings with it the now traditional dull sadness for that lost Allen era in which all this was great.
Well, there is some surface narrative drive, one or two pretty good lines and Elle Fanning gives it all of her very considerable intelligence and charm. Allen has made worse films than this, and it isn’t as bad as his gruesome Hollywood Ending (2002) and it’s not like his Magic in the Moonlight (2014), which even seemed to have used the wrong takes in the finished print. But it’s also pretty pointless, and when Timothée Chalamet’s thin, warbling voice takes on an American songbook standard, you might find your attention wandering.
The setting is New York, which now looks like luxury-tourist city-break destinations, such as Rome or Paris, depicted in his other films. The setting is the present day, but with plenty of weird jazz-age totems and anachronisms. Actually, what it resembles is that particular time in the 1970s when the 1930s were popular. At one point, a guy in his early 20s tells another character that someone’s girlfriend “resembles Yasser Arafat”. A pretty niche gag for Gen Z, surely?
Chalamet is fey and winsome in the role of a wealthy young undergraduate at an upstate liberal arts college, who has the entirely preposterous name of Gatsby Welles. That can only be a wry, self-aware joke – and yet, despite the jumping all over cultural references that happens everywhere else in the screenplay, no character here goes anywhere near that outrageous moniker. Gatsby is dating Ashleigh (Fanning), a peppy, preppy gal with sweaters and short skirts from an earlier age, who as a student journalist has been given the chance to go to Manhattan and interview tortured movie director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber) for the college paper.
Ashleigh and Gatsby agree to go together, but the rain inspires romantic adventures; Ashleigh winds up in farcical situations with Pollard, with his screenwriter, Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), and with a certain sleazy womanising star called Francisco Vega (Diego Luna). Meanwhile, Gatsby, despite his youth, gets to flirt with a younger woman – the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend, Chan (Selena Gomez). Weirdly, they even have a joke about Gigi (although Chalamet is not required to sing the lyrics to “Thank heaven for little girls”).
The movie is decorated in those downbeat, autumnal yellows, ochres and browns that are such an important part of Allen’s palette, with people wearing a lot of sweaters and corduroys, and it is shot by Vittorio Storaro who, as so often while working with Allen, goes in for that golden-tan glow. Yet, because there is little or no sunshine, this glow comes from the indoor lighting. There is an odd moment when Gatsby sits down at a baby grand piano to play a song (the Sinatra standard Everything Happens to Me) and he actually pauses beforehand to switch on a standard lamp, just to get a semi-circle of that all-important musty, orangey light, which spreads its airless pall everywhere. This is like an over-chewed piece of gum: flavourless.
• A Rainy Day in New York is available on digital platforms from 5 June.