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by: Michael Dequina

With such odious films as Battlefield Earth and Coyote Ugly meriting advance screenings for critics, speculation could not help but reach a fevered pitch when MGM opted not to screen Autumn in New York. Could this romantic drama featuring two established stars (Richard Gere and Winona Ryder) and a very capable director (Joan Chen) be a big-name bellyflop? Or is it the gem whose plot "secrets" needed to be protected, as according to the studio's official reason? The answer, however, is not nearly as intriguing as either of those extremes. The genteel and benign Autumn is hardly the disaster cynics have dreaded, but this love story is also hardly the all-stops-out tearjerker it strives to be.

The latter fact stems from a fundamental conflict between the sensibilities of the screenwriter and director. Chen's auspicious debut film, the stunning Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, was an intrinsically powerful story that packed an intensified emotional wallop through its subtlety--which is not exactly the best match for the shameless button-pusher that is Allison Burnett's script. Will Keane (Gere) is a restaurateur with a well-known reputation for womanizing. When the nubile young Charlotte Fielding (Winona Ryder) catches his eye and expresses interest in return, Will doesn't see any reason why this affair will be any different until his many others--that is, until she confesses her terminal illness. It seems like an ideal arrangement, the ladykiller who loves 'em and leaves 'em hooking up with a woman who has no long-term prospects nor expectations. But, of course, Cupid will not be denied.

Chen is able to give Autumn some of the lyrical understatement that she lent to Xiu Xiu. The tasteful love scenes do have a romantic air; the images (captured by cinematographer Changwei Gu) are lush and inviting, as is Gabriel Yared's score; and the big emotional moments are not histrionic. But this is, as written, a formula exercise in manipulation, and for it to achieve its desired weepy effect, there needs to be a more forceful hand at work. The material simply isn't strong nor convincing enough on its own to wring tears by itself--and how could it, given some of the awkward dialogue ("I can smell the moonlight! When did I learn to do that?" rhetorically inquires Charlotte before the first big kiss).

At least the script is brave enough to address the vast age difference between Gere and Ryder, making for some of the film's more amusing repartée. Together, the pair neither smolder nor fizzle; there is a compatibility, but not one overwhelming enough to make Will's inevitable changes completely believable. Individually, though, they fare better: Gere can do the cocksure bit in his sleep, and Ryder displays her natural incandescence (though it ultimately contradicts her character's condition--she maintains a healthy glow even as things gradually become more dire).

Perhaps MGM's no-screening decision on Autumn in New York was simply a way to get it more publicity than it otherwise would have. After all, it is still the season of larger, louder films, and something this quiet--and unexceptionally so--would barely register with anyone.

RATING: ** 1/2 (out of *****)


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