"Richard Gere is to Robert De Niro what Beatlemania is to the Beatles," Pauline Kael famously wrote many years ago--in other words, a copy, a piece of shiny plastic. Today, when De Niro is reduced to trading quips with Rocky and Bullwinkle, Kael might want to rewrite that line: "Richard Gere is to Robert De Niro what Beatlemania is to an Elvis impersonator." But I doubt whether her opinion of Gere has changed all that much. He's always been a very self-involved actor (a tricky thing to pull off when you're a committed Buddhist), but in his early movies--from American Gigolo to Internal Affairs--he managed to convey a certain detachment from his self-involvement. He stood outside himself and didn't always like what he saw (though he only saw himself, of course). Now, with Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride under his belt, and with the Big Five-O behind him, Gere appears poised to dive headfirst into Narcissus' pool. Which brings up a little movie called Autumn in New York. Directed by Joan Chen, whose first film, Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, was literally and figuratively a half-world away, Autumn in New York is one of those "I'll Fake Manhattan" movies that Woody Allen and Nora Ephron have been concocting over the years, albeit this time with a twist straight out of Love Story. Imagine that Annie Hall, in the middle of a "la-di-dah," suddenly runs out of breath and reaches for her heart; that's Autumn in New York, which stars Gere as a confirmed bachelor and Winona Ryder as the one woman who could coax him down the aisle if she weren't being fitted for a casket. That she's half his age is considered the height of irony; she'll die before he does. It's also the barrier in this romantic comedy's boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-calls-funeral-home plot. "We have no future," Gere tells Ryder early on, unaware that she barely has a present. Perhaps he didn't notice all those autumn leaves detaching themselves from nearby trees, landing on the ground with a symbolic thud. But surely he realizes something's going on when Ryder steals his watch and says she'll give it back after he's forgotten she took it. Or when she starts quoting Emily Dickinson. ("Because I could not stop for--pay close attention now--Death....") Dialogue-wise, Chen and scriptwriter Allison Burnett keep overplaying their hand, mistaking jokers for aces. Meanwhile, the characters go undeveloped. Gere supposedly runs one of the hottest restaurants in town, but all it leads to is one really bad line: "Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes." (Ryder practically gasps when she hears it.) As for our heartsick poetry lover, she spends all her free time making funny hats, a trope lifted from Tama Janowitz's Slaves in New York. Despite a face that the camera can't seem to get enough of, Ryder is unequipped for the role of ethereal waif. "Man, you don't dance, you float," Gere tells her at some museum function, but we can see the effort all over her face. Audrey Hepburn she ain't. Nor is Gere Cary Grant, who played Hepburn's old-enough-to-be-your-father love interest in Charade. Gere and Ryder strain for effects that Grant and Hepburn didn't even have to reach for, and so the script is forced to come to their rescue, doling out line after line about how wonderful they both are. "What did you do, make a deal with the Devil?" someone asks Gere regarding his well-preserved carcass, and he doesn't even have the grace to say, "Oh, give me a break," just accepts it as his due. With his silver mane and GQ bod, Gere is a hottie, I suppose, but it's almost as if the movie's about how good-looking he still is--to the point of our wondering what he sees in Ryder. The movie floats some Pygmalion ideas early on, then abandons them when it turns out Ryder has a few things to teach Gere about life and death. To say that there is little chemistry between Gere and Ryder is to overlook the chemistry between Gere and Gere. Instead of Love Story, it's Self-Love Story.
And yet it might have worked if the script had any fizz in it. Or if it delved more into why Gere's character is such a womanizer. Love Story's Ryan O'Neal was almost as self-regarding an actor as Gere is, and Ali MacGraw had all of Ryder's limitations, but their characters were given a more interesting barrier to get past: class. Age is kind of a nonissue if you look like Gere, so the movie nullifies itself before it's had the chance to nullify Ryder. It also nullifies itself by trying to combine a romantic comedy with a romantic tragedy. Chen and cinematographer Changwei Gu (Farewell, My Concubine) keep things awfully dark, and yet Chen can't allow Ryder's terminal illness to even smudge her makeup. By movie's end, only the great Elaine Stritch, as Ryder's seen-it-all grandmother, has managed to successfully ride the fine line between life and death, teetering on her high heels like a crumbling statue.