By Craig Dowd
Asbury Pulp Critic
For many of us, introducing a significant other to one’s family is like downing a tumbler of truth serum and being divested of the persona you fabricated for yourself, instinctively if not wisely, upon first meeting your new lover.
For there’s something about being around family that strips us naked, altering not only how we perceive ourselves but how others, for better or worse, perceive us. Depending on how honest you’ve been in your relationship, this bizarre influx of vulnerability can be a source of embarrassment, anxiety or, ideally, a confirmation that you’re actually worthy of being tolerated and, ultimately, loved, despite what your friends might think. Still, in this terrifying state of exposure the person you truly are, have always been and into whom you’ll no doubt ripen, or deteriorate, is now glaringly pronounced and, in your partner’s eyes, up for reevaluation.
This sort of augmented intimacy backfires against the frazzled protagonists of Julie Delpy’s 2007 relationship satire, 2 Days in Paris, when Marion, a reflective-to-a-fault photographer and her then-boyfriend Jack visit her quintessential French family and spend the entire vacation entrenched in petty, albeit amusing, argument, until their brand of snarky opposition – once the lifeblood of their relationship – loses its appeal and can no longer sustain their already tenuous physical bond. It doesn’t help that Marion’s coterie of ex-lovers, all of whom are previously undisclosed and together could field a soccer team, emerge from a spate of lost-in-translation gags with the regularity and jarring annoyance of underemployed masked men inside a haunted house tour for kids. Jack crumbles under the weight of such French absurdity as only an insufferable, allergy-ridden American interior designer can, and his relationship with Marion at the film’s coda, at least romantically, fizzles.
2 Days in New York, now playing at Asbury Park’s very own art house theater, The Showroom, picks up where 2 Days in Paris left off – with Marion again trying to integrate and reconcile the roles of love, family and art with her indecisive, hyper-intellectual identity. But this time around her family is coming to New York to see her latest photo exhibit and Jack, with whom she now has a son, is out of the picture, having been replaced by the twice-divorced Mingus, an affable journalist and radio show host played by Chis Rock, himself the father of a young, eccentric daughter, Willow, or as Marion calls her, “the first black goth girl.”
Modeled as a fairy tale told to their future-daughter, 2 Days in New York re-contextualizes much of the same content that preoccupied its predecessor, wading through, mocking and occasionally uprooting the modern family (Marion’s son, Lulu, refers to Mingus as his “fake daddy”), Franco-American politics, race relations and sexual stereotypes with flamboyance, charm and farcical exuberance, but does so with a more mature, if no less stable, approach, infusing its characters and the decisions they make with a grand significance they previously lacked.
With a family of their own the stakes are higher now, and so is the intensity of their desperate floundering, yet the comedy that stems from the interactions between Mingus and Marion’s own family – specifically Manu, her cringe-inducing racist of an ex-boyfriend, and Jeannot, her boyish, wide-eyed hunchback-father who lumbers around New York City with wine-stained lips like a character recently escaped from a Maurice Sendak illustration, randomly keying cars, tickling men and praising President Obama for being a socialist – is somehow, despite its overt indulgence, more subtle, assured and nuanced than anything found in Delpy’s earlier comedic work.
Like the two films that cemented Delpy’s status as an indie-powerhouse with a pout, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, 2 Days in New York largely unfurls in discussion, but unlike Richard Linklater’s two iconic films there are no long, voyeuristic tracking shots and sweeping vistas of beautified cities colored by tranquil blue skies.
Instead, Delpy employs brief, biting skits set in an oyster-gray New York that bleed into comic ellipses and coagulate to produce a tapestry of shock, humor and unassuming beauty, like a burlesque show staged on a filthy sidewalk. Here, like a devilish child with a new toy, Delpy does her best to exacerbate the film’s clash of cultures motif: Upon first entering Marion’s modest apartment, Jeannot wonders out loud where he’ll be able to masturbate; then he wanders around a high-end American fitness center with Manu as though on safari, shamelessly perpetuating the French’s insatiable lust and purported hatred of exercise; when not walking around half-naked, Marion’s nymphomaniac sister introduces Mingus’ electric toothbrush into her sex life; and when Manu buys marijuana in front of Willow her father tells her it’s grass from Central Park because “they don’t have grass in France,” which, predictably, inspires Willow to try and sell bags of grass to the first foreigner she meets.
These scenes are hilarious and often insightful, but any whiff of profundity or serious observation about the inevitable flux of family, particularly when pitted against a manic city and a fickle art world, is often lost to the film’s breezy pace. The only thing anchoring them to a forward moving narrative is the anticipation of Marion’s forthcoming exhibit, at which, for ten thousand dollars, she’ll be selling her soul – conceptually, at least.
Unfortunately, due to “tough economic times” souls just aren’t worth what they used to be. Unlike the bluesman Robert Johnson, who in exchange for his soul received the ability, or burden, to play the guitar like the devil, Marion’s uncertain soul is bought by an anonymous buyer for a measly five grand, causing her to plummet into a pit of existential dread.
After some wheeling and dealing, the anonymous buyer of Marion’s soul agrees to meet her in a faintly lit cafe, and it’s here where Delpy’s ironic sense of humor moves to the fore, as the anonymous buyer turns out to be the inimitable Vincent Gallo, playing himself.
“Yes,” he confirms to Marion. “Vincent Gallo, the actor, director, poet, fashion model, motorcycle racer, the legend, and now the owner of your soul, yes, me.” For those who don’t know, Gallo, director of the film Buffalo ’66 and the man who put a cancer hex on Roger Ebert’s colon, sells his sexual fantasies and semen online as “conceptual works of art.” This kind of casting choice is yet another perfect example of Delpy’s propensity to insert into her films not only poignant self-analysis but sardonic commentary on the arbitrary and self-indulgent nature of art and the occasionally ridiculous emphasis we place on it and those who make it.
In the end, 2 Days in New York isn’t about the predictable epiphanies all cinematic couples must stumble upon before gaining admittance into that exclusive club called Bliss, or if once-electric relationships can shoulder the melancholy of middle age, but the urgency and sincerity with which two people, together, can delve into life, or argue about it, manners be damned. To paraphrase Charlotte Bronte, Delpy’s characters would rather be happy than dignified; they’re picky as perfectionists yet manic as a Beat poet’s purple poem, torn in every direction at once. The magic lies not in the fairy tale family they might obtain, but the severity with which they fight for the fairy tale’s potential to even exist.
As commonplace love stories so routinely illustrate, an overabundance of unexamined enthusiasm breeds an emotional silence, and ultimately severs the unbreakable bond developed by the sometimes-pugilistic dynamic of love – or at least a love worth fighting for, a love worth surviving the shock of nakedness and the imperfections nakedness reveals.
2 Days in New York simultaneously embodies, repudiates and bickers with all of this, and like the best Woody Allen films it observes through a breath-stained window pane the lunacy of ordinary life, hoping to catch a rare, unalloyed glimpse of some fleeting, off-the-cuff profundity. Nora Ephron can rest easy and Lena Dunham will have to be patient; if there’s an undisputed poetess of manners presiding over today’s fickle cinema, her name, surely, is Julie Delpy.
For showtimes, visit The Showroom at: www.theshowroomap.com. Official film trailer below: