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(2000) (Richard Gere, Winona Ryder) (PG-13)

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Drama: A middle-aged playboy with an aversion to commitment finds himself falling for a woman half his age who may not have long to live.
Will Keane (RICHARD GERE) is a successful and suave New York restaurateur and renowned ladies man, whose age of forty-eight has neither hampered nor slowed down his efforts in either field. Charlotte Fielding (WINONA RYDER), on the other hand, is a still somewhat awkward 22-year-old woman known best for making bizarre hats. When the two meet on Charlotte's birthday through her salty grandmother, Dolores (ELAINE STRITCH), whom Will has known for quite some time, the sparks immediately fly between them, despite their differences in age.

Ever the womanizer and after an amorous evening, Will tells Charlotte that this romance won't work between them. She agrees, but for different reasons as she then informs him that she's living on borrowed time since she has a non-cancerous tumor growing inside her heart that should have killed her by now. Despite warnings from Dolores and advice from his friend and restaurant worker, John (ANTHONY LaPAGLIA), not to get involved with Charlotte, her candid disclosure has now made him fall for her.

With word from Charlotte's physician, Dr. Sibley (MARY BETH HURT), that Charlotte probably has less than a year to live, Will sets out to make her remaining time as enjoyable as possible. Yet, his involvement with several women from his past, Lynn (JILL HENNESSY), a former girlfriend and Lisa (VERA FARMIGA), the adult daughter he's never met, soon impact his and Charlotte's relationship. As Charlotte's condition continues to deteriorate and her love affair with Will hits its share of bumps in the road, they try to make things work out before time runs out for both her and them.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
While many people seem to relish gossiping about relationships and second-guessing the decisions made by those involved in them, few such relationships elicit as much response as the old May-December romance. Although other cultures have routinely accepted such pairings or at least turned a blind eye to them, many westernized ones have a bit more of a difficult time with them.

Some will argue that such pairings are quite natural, in that younger women are pre-wired to desire an older man's genes related to success, experience and security for their future offspring, while older men believe that beauty and shapely bodies equal a higher reproductive state. Of course, others will simply find such relationships as pairings between dirty old men looking for trophy wives and young gold diggers looking for an easy future.

Whatever the case, many people are fascinated by such relationships in real life, such as between Anna Nicole Smith and her late, billionaire husband, Hugh Hefner and whoever the latest pretty young thing is on his arm, and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The movies also provide similar, but fictitious couplings. Whether it's Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in "A Perfect Murder," James Mason and Sue Lyon in "Lolita," Richard Gere and Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," or heck, even the reverse with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in "The Graduate," such pairings are nothing short of titillating cinematic tidbits for moviegoers.

The obvious problem of many such pairings however, is that either they're somewhat creepy in a perverted sense due to the young age involved (as was the case with "Lolita") or simply unbelievable due to a lack of chemistry or no one buying into such a relationship.

Unfortunately, both of the latter are true in director Joan Chen's sophomore outing, "Autumn in New York." Although both Richard Gere ("Runaway Bride," "The Jackal") and Winona Ryder ("Girl, Interrupted," "Little Women") are attractive and talented performers in their own right, they simply don't make for a believable couple.

The age difference between the two (twenty-six years in the film, twenty-two in real life) obviously plays a big part of that, but it certainly doesn't help that neither Chen (who made her debut with 1998's "Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl") nor screenwriter Allison Burnett ("Bleeding Hearts," "Red Meat") give the performers anything great, memorable or credible with which to work.

The film is filled with all sorts of moments and dialogue that are supposed to be profound, moving and/or emotionally charged (for both the characters and the viewer), but instead turn out to be laughable, silly and certainly not taken seriously by anyone in the audience. While melodrama has its place and can work if handled properly and with the utmost care, the moments here are so hackneyed and mishandled (especially those involving some painfully bad poetry readings) that whatever slim chance the film had at successfully holding and/or moving the audience is completely shot.

The basic story of a middle-aged womanizer learning how to finally love through the prospects of potential loss has some potential, as does the whole issue of whether or not a terminally ill person would get involved without someone (or vice-versa) knowing that their time was limited. Nonetheless, the filmmakers completely bungle both elements here. Simply put, the film never manages to engage the viewer to any appreciable or credible extent with either issue, and as a result, we simply don't care about the characters when that's the most important thing a film like this must accomplish if it wishes to work.

Of course, the age difference impediment certainly doesn't help matters as we're immediately distracted by it and the lack of chemistry and credibility between the two stars. A simple switch in some plot elements not only would have alleviated that problem, but may also have generally made for a better overall picture. Since a somewhat obtuse subplot is thrown in about Gere's character finally meeting an adult daughter he sired but never helped raise, the film would have benefited by jettisoning the love angle and having Ryder's character be that daughter.

The way I see it, Will could have spotted Charlotte and put the moves on her, only to have both of them be surprised and shocked when they mutually figure out that he's her long lost father. Being the sort of non-committal, wash his hands of any situation type guy, he'd immediately try to flee, but upon learning that she's terminally ill, he'd eventually come back and not only learn how to be the father he never was, but also then race to save her life.

By doing so, the unbelievable passion angle would be discarded in favor of paternal love, and the film would then have had even greater emotional depth and resonance. It also would have solved the film's second most incredulous bit, and that regards Will's abrupt change from being a carefree womanizer to suddenly and completely falling for Charlotte.

Simply put, he's an opportunistic creep and there's no way on God's green Earth that he would stick around, let alone fall for a terminally ill woman. Of course, if there was some sort of initially superficial motivation present for him to do so - she's rich and he could be in line to inherit her money, etc. - which would then naturally segue into love, that would be one thing.

Unfortunately, that's not the case and we simply never buy into his sudden transformation, or pretty much any of the movie as a whole. Void of some much needed comic relief (be it dialogue, situations or characters) and about as slow, dreary and tedious as one can imagine, the film simply plods along its predictable course, dragging many a reluctant and most likely disappointed viewer with it.

While the romantic drama genre isn't particularly one of my favorites - although such offerings can be effective and enjoyable if done just right - there isn't much worse than when they fail across the board and become cinematic travesties, unfit for viewing for all but the hardiest of viewers who've previously been inoculated for such pablum.

Beyond the groan-inducing dialogue and sloth-like pace, the film is filled with inordinate amounts of obtuse symbolism. Beyond the obvious point of the film's title and the setting of the story in that meteorological season that's always represented the downhill slope in one's life and is inevitably followed by the cold and dark of winter, there's the whole heart analogy thing.

While Charlotte is the one dying from a sick heart, it's really Will who's suffering from a diseased ticker. Then there's the whole bit about Charlotte taking Will's watch - in essence, borrowing some more "time" from him. If all of that wasn't so obvious and trite, then perhaps it wouldn't induce the gag reflex, but that's not the case and theaters had better replace their tear-absorbent toilet paper with barf bags.

Although Gere and Ryder's sheer presence - individually and not collectively - makes the film somewhat easier to watch, there's certainly nothing remarkable or moving about their performances. Elaine Stritch ("Out to Sea," "Cocoon: The Return") occasionally seems like she's realized what a dog she's in and attempts to infuse some life into the proceedings with her salty grandmother role, but the filmmakers effectively cut her short whenever that's about to occur. The rest of the supporting performances reside far away on the back burner, resulting in the likes of Anthony LaPaglia ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Summer of Sam") and Vera Farmiga ("Return to Paradise") having absolutely no chance to make any sort of difference here.

In general, this is one dog of a romantic drama where nothing works and the efforts are far more likely to induce groans and laughter rather than the intended sobs and sympathy. If you're looking for a painful time at the movies, by all means check this one out. Otherwise, heed our advice and cross your fingers that the real fall brings something far better and more colorful than "Autumn in New York." It rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed August 11, 2000 / Posted August 11, 2000

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