To the Poor and the Decent: Get Out of Town!

02/22/2010 10:15 AM |

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In recent years, New York movies have arrived in pairs: in 2008, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and The Pleasure of Being Robbed opened on the same weekend, offering distinct portraits of the gentrified city. The following year, New York, I Love You cluelessly captured life in “The City,” only to have its non-native fantasy quietly rebuked weeks later by the otherwise pointless and meta-conceited Uncertainty.

Last Friday, two more New York movies opened, begging for comparison: the Wall-Street-is-bad The Good Guy and, well, the Wall-Street-is-bad The Last New Yorker. Though the former is centered on transplanted yuppie scum, and the latter on elderly, displaced natives, the two films are essentially about the same thing: couples being pushed out of a city in which they don’t belong. In The Last New Yorker, it’s for cultural and, even more so, economic reasons; in The Good Guy, it’s moral.

The aged couple in The Last New Yorker is two old friends, played by Dominic Chianese and Dick Latessa, still wandering the streets below Madison Square though, my how they’ve changed! Chianese is old-fashioned: he brings women flowers, he blows his savings on a nice suit. But his ways are outmoded and, reflecting that, the city he knows is all but vanished: the last few independently owned businesses have been bought out. The tailor’s shop is becoming a cell phone store; the steakhouse is an empty construction site. Chianese tries to keep pace, playing the Wall Street game by investing the last of his money according to whims and rumors passed on by men in sandwich boards. In doing so, he loses all his money (and that of many others), proving once and for all that he has no place living in this current iteration of New York. He’s not a big money man-he’s a Regular Guy. But the working class has been pushed out along with the middle class. And, with them, the ordinary, decent sorts. Chianese and Latessa end the film by moving to Italy; Europe, of course, still has a place for the charm of the superannuated. (And a social welfare state that makes living affordable?)

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Who’re the wealthy individuals that have pushed out those two old men? The cast of characters in The Good Guy, that’s who! Oh, except for the film’s two romantic heroes; they also don’t fit in, but it’s not because of old age or a lack of money-they’re hip (sort of), white and well off. Alexis Bledel and Bryan Greenberg play the lovebirds-by-end-credits, “the only living decent twentysomethings in New York,” as I wrote in my review, who are otherwise surrounded by “vagina-waxing bitches and douchebag daytraders, a.k.a megamoney misogynists”. Both of them are part of the same endangered species: fundamentally decent people (signaled by the fact that they don’t hook up in bars for casual sex) in a city that looks like the Sodom and Gomorrah caricature planted in the minds of out-of-towners. The boys pop pills, hunt for sexable chicks, and brag about the conquests at work the next day while pulling off multi-million dollar market wagers. The girls paint their faces, dress up like birds of paradise in heat, and parade through the city looking for rich men to fuck.

Bledel, an “urban conservationist,” is offered a promotion that would require her to relocate to San Francisco—about as far from New York as Italy, though in the other direction. The movie ends ambiguously regarding whether she takes the position or not, but it’s clear that this city of two-timers and creeps isn’t for her, or her new boyfriend. As Latessa tells Chianese, “This isn’t our city anymore.” Bledel might as well say the same to Greenberg—just, maybe without that “anymore”.

The problem is that it’s these pushed-out people who give the city its character. Granted, Bledel and Greenberg are humorless, and probably have an orifice-less patch of smooth skin where the rest of us have reproductive organs, but they are at least the kinds of people who read books, discuss them, and buy more at brick-and-mortar bookstores. (The Wall Street pricks use bookstores as a place to pick up chicks.) Chianese and Latessa are the charming types that make a young waitress’ day, and keep the coffee shops and florists in business. In The Last New Yorker, all of the stores are closing because the numbers of men like our two heroes are steadily declining. In fact, many of the locations used in the film really did shutter since shooting wrapped.

New York recreates itself with each passing generation. But these two films suggest that they do so in the image of the people in power. The more reliant this city becomes on high finance, chain-stores and boutiques, the more it offers little more than a fuck, the more it ceases to maintain a place for the middle class and the moral, the less it can still call itself “New York“. As I wrote two years ago, about two other films, “a city populated only by rent-raisers and by jerk-offs will cease to be the city they invaded.” Interestingly, neither film advocates that its heroes stay in the city and fight for a better future. It’s too far gone, they say. Best to cut your losses and git. To think: people used to leave New York because of the street crime!