The Last New Yorker
Directed by Harvey Wang
The Last New Yorker, a slight, warm, charming and geriatric romance, is a paean to and eulogy for the remnants of Old New York, still barely just visible in this post-gentrified, post-Rudy-Bloomie city: the pubs serving corned beef, the newsstands, the tailors and jewelers. In short, the mom-and-pop businesses, all of which seem to be getting bought out in the film—and many of which, in real life, have shuttered since shooting wrapped. One character walks to his favorite steakhouse, only to discover it's become an empty lot. It's a city of eroding signage, graffitoed walls, cranes, construction sites and scaffolding. Director Wang, welcomely, boasts a longtime native's sense of the city, embodied in the title character, Lenny (Dominic Chainese), an elderly, caviling Jewish man cut from a cloth they don't sell in the garment district anymore. "Do you think I could survive anywhere but here?" he asks. "I'll never leave New York." (Which he means almost literally; he's visited Jersey.) Still, he admits to an old friend, "it's getting crueler."
But this isn't a cruel or self-pitying movie: it's the kind that uses a suicide attempt to cash in on a few sight gags. The film's central pleasure comes from watching Lenny and his longtime pal, Ruben (Dick Latessa), two vanishing Gotham archetypes, as they kvetch hilariously about assorted nothings and the changing city; they bicker like old marrieds with the same dynamic Seinfeld once tapped into: watching the two interact is like seeing Jerry and George, or even Alvy and Max, back together again, many years later, this time on death's door. (The Last New Yorker feels like a TV show in other ways, too, that are neither flattering nor rewarding, from a credits sequence that seems to belong to a pilot that didn't get picked up to its student-film visual sense—a surprise, given that Wang is a noted still-photographer.) Lenny falls in love at first sight with Mimi (the glowing Kathleen Chalfant), an Annie Hall type in a grandmother phase, a lovely woman who appreciates his candor and giggles sweetly and often at his awkward confusion and old-fashioned kindness. (Chalfant affirms that aged women can command the screen with dignity and grace.) He courts her for laughs and, ultimately, pathos. It's hard not to be moved by a film so hopelessly sweet.
Beneath its light-hearted veneer, though, The Last New Yorker is a secretly serious film about collapse: municipal, personal, romantic and economic. Lenny goes broke when his investments crash, and he becomes a mini-Madoff, collecting cash-to-lose from the last shop-owning holdouts, all elderly Jews like himself. (Chianese, of course, is Italian—and Latessa sounds Italian—but at a certain age, Italian and Jewish become indistinguishable. In New York, anyhow.) "It's the land of the rich now," Lenny laments of New York, and it's no wonder that he can't cut it in finance, the Big Apple's occupation du jour; as Ruben tells him, "This isn't our city anymore." The scenes between Chianese and his hotshot stockbroker nephew (Josh Hamilton)—a Blue tooth stuck in his ear, wearing a baseball cap "in a place of business"—are the film's driest, but that seems to say something less about the actors or writing than the city itself: today's New Yorkers are bland, colorless, and without character. When Ruben and Lenny escape from New York in the final reel, the city is a lot worse off for it.
Opens February 19