Nick Hornby is a prime example of how a potentially interesting and even challenging writer can be brought to heel and transformed into a creator of run-of-the-mill romantic comedies.
The first-person novel Fever Pitch, Hornby’s clever semi-autobiographical account of a rabid English soccer football fan plotting the major events in his love life by the barometer of his team’s fortunes, was adapted twice. The UK version starred Colin Firth and was buoyed by Hornby’s faithful screenplay. In the second try, Hornby got run over by a Hollywood lawn mower called the Farrelly Bros., Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel. Arsenal morphed into the Boston Red Sox, with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore performing the mating dance in second gear. Hornby’s fate was sealed — he was doomed to be adapted into nothingness, to become a puddle of multiplex butter-substitute goo by slow degrees.
High Fidelity, arguably the best Hornby film, held out hope that he might still rescue himself on the strength of John Cusack, Stephen Frears, and the brotherhood of vinyl record geekdom. That hope fizzled with the soppy feel-gooder About a Boy, a fair-sized hit about a big overgrown kid (Hugh Grant) and the littler, cuter kid who forced him to learn Valuable Life Lessons about himself. Now it’s 2009 and Hornby is adapting other people’s novels.
It’s not very Hornby, but it’s not bad. In fact, we could go so far as to say that An Education is one of the smarter entertainments of the season, a coming-of-age story about an English schoolgirl named Jenny (Carey Mulligan) aching to do all the things coming-of-age protagonists need to do — to break free, exercise her imagination, find love on her own terms, etc. — while coping with her blessing of bad luck.
It’s London in 1961, the eve of the Mod era, one of the coolest times and places in history to be sixteen years old. Jenny and her cello get caught in the rain and meet a kind and generous young man named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who offers a ride home. She’s a Francophile, he’s Jewish, and they instantly hit it off. David invites Jenny to a night on the town. He and his posh friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike) go to the opera, attend art auctions, and live in a swank flat where they sip cocktails and banter about jazz and French films. Rich beatniks! David even claims to know C.S. Lewis, who taught him at Oxford.
What a contrast to Jenny’s bland home life with her joyless parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) constantly worrying about finances. At first the folks fret about Jenny’s new boyfriend — David is older and obviously on the fast track — but after they get a whiff of his money their reservations melt. The only people in Jenny’s life who remain wary are her teacher (Olivia Williams) and the school headmistress, nicely played by Emma Thompson.
Swept off her feet but still in faint control of herself, Jenny begins to notice odd things about David and Danny. On their drives around London, the two men sometimes go off together while insisting the girls wait in the car. It’s enough to say that when David and Danny put on their hats, watch out. By the time the mist evaporates, Jenny finds herself pondering the film’s title (Hornby adapted the screenplay from Lynn Barber’s memoir), a sadder but wiser young woman ready to face the Sixties with a bit of experience tucked away in her handbag.
Bright-eyed actor Mulligan (Pride & Prejudice, Public Enemies) lights up every scene she’s in, followed closely by veteran changeling Sarsgaard in yet another of his shadowy roles, as a well-spoken, middle-class man with hidden reserves of untrustworthiness. Molina and Seymour, of course, are pitch-perfect as the anxious parent-pimps. It’s all directed briskly by Danish move-over Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) with plenty of Mad Men-style period details — but if screenwriter Hornby left any traces of his personality they’re hard to spot. No matter. The price of An Education is something we’re ready to pay.
When Paris, je t’aime was released in 2006, we tempered our praise for it with apprehension that it might lead to a never-ending series of fluffy, hastily written, lightly romantic, tourist-y travelogues about various world destinations. And so with the arrival of New York, I Love You, our fears have come true. If anything, this wretched mishmash of clichés and lazy scene-setting is as distressing for its lack of curiosity as for its smothering sweetness. It’s a criminal waste of time.
No fewer than eleven directors contributed to the interwoven narrative, including some who should be ashamed of themselves — Mira Nair, German helmer Fatih Akin, Yvan Attal, Allen Hughes, Shakhar Kapur — and a few for whom even this slapped-together project represents a step up the ladder. Unlike the Paris film, which divided itself into separate titled vignettes each signed by its director, New York, I Love You (produced by Emmanuel Benbihy, one of the earlier film’s guiding lights) presents an unbroken string of interlocking scene-lets with characters that may or may not recur, seemingly at random.
Thus, when Hassidic bride-to-be Natalie Portman shows up in Manhattan’s 47th Street Diamond district to interact with jeweler Irrfan Khan (in a scene directed by Ms. Nair), we never know if and when she may bump into, say, Ethan Hawke’s obnoxious bar patron or pharmacist James Caan and his “disabled” daughter, Olivia Thirlby, later in the film. There are a few striking individual performances: Robin Wright Penn and Chris Cooper as play-acting spouses (directed by Attal); Qi Shu as a Chinatown herbalist’s assistant intrigued by the proposition of a painter (Ugur Yücel) in a segment by Akin; and Anton Yelchin and the aforementioned Thirlby in Brett Rattner’s prom-in-a-wheelchair skit. But generally, New York, I Love You has all the character complexity and nuance of a light beer commercial.
The assembled filmmakers never seem to reach for anything further than a chamber-of-commerce view of New York — the movie could have been commissioned by the city’s tourist bureau. Only one sequence, of old folks Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman kvetching their way down the boardwalk in Coney Island, takes place in the outer boroughs, and entire constituencies go missing in the search for consumer-friendly romance. Where are the African Americans, the Puerto Ricans, the Albanian construction workers? Maybe they’ve already left NYC for this dismal series’ next stop, Te Amo Juárez.