Naked in New York

(Dan Algrant, USA, 1994)


"I'm 25, and thinking about marriage." So speaks Jake (Eric Stoltz) at the wheel of his car, looking directly into the camera. Jake then starts to weave a tapestry of his life from key incidents – such as the electrical blackout of 1965, during which his father left the family home and never returned. Or the moment when, as a baby, he was placed on the revolving server in a Chinese restaurant and literally passed around.

Patterns emerge in this mosaic of memory, especially pertaining to his relationships with women. Jake is a sensitive guy, easily beguiled by and extremely sympathetic to women, beginning with his mother (Jill Clayburgh). But he is also capable of cruelty, egotism and sudden withdrawal, just like his absent Dad.

The core of Naked in New York traces Jake's first serious, long-term relationship with photographer Joanne (Mary-Louise Parker). The film economically covers the passage of this liaison from the first flushes of intimacy to the schisms created by different career paths. Separated for a time, both members of this couple are tempted by slightly demonic, older figures, in Joanne's case the gallery owner Elliot (Timothy Dalton).

Jake's life story is also a portrait of an artist as a young man, as he negotiates the conflicting impulses of work and love. With his best friend, actor Chris (Ralph Macchio), Jake tries to crack the New York theatre world. Taken in hand by the gruff impresario Carl (Tony Curtis), Jake helps reshape his autobiographical play "Master of My Emotions" into a clumsy off-Broadway vehicle for the gushing soap star Dana (Kathleen Turner).

Naked in New York, the debut feature of writer-director Dan Algrant, will remind viewers variously of Woody Allen's oeuvre, James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment (1983) or Cameron Crowe's Singles (1992). It reminded me especially of Spalding Gray's theatrical monologues, for its similar mix of neurosis and epiphany, of bewilderment and awe, in the face of life's daily mysteries.

Something Gray would never indulge, however, is Algrant's tendency to caricature the "wanky" artistic milieu of his formative years. The film milks easy laughs from the supposed preciousness of Method actors, and the crazy conceptual theatre pieces dreamt up by Jake in college. A queer running gag involves Jake's obsession with the artistic symbolism of wood chopping. Perhaps a clue to this may be found in Algrant's own filmography, which lists an early short called Some Film Chopping Wood.

Algrant keeps his filmic style reasonably modest and straight, trusting the gifts of his talented cast. There are occasional nods to the more flamboyant approach of Martin Scorsese (here serving as Executive Producer). Some of these flourishes are hilariously successful, such as in a party scene where the résumés of attending celebrities roll up the screen at a dizzying rate. Others – particularly the constant use of whip pans for jazzy scene transitions, and the contrived fantasy sequences – work less well.

There are times when this movie is too neat, too clever, too synoptic for its own good. But such breezy slickness is far outweighed by the small but telling emotional truths which Algrant discovers everywhere, in the most ordinary moments – lovers struggling with a difficult phone conversation, friends drunk at a party, the awkward intimacies of one-night stands. Naked in New York is an absorbing and satisfying debut.

© Adrian Martin February 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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