Big-screen incarnations of superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman have seen their share of franchise stresses, but few movie series have experienced a nosedive like the one currently afflicting the world’s great cities. With Paris, Je T’aime, producer Emmanuel Benbihy kicked off an anthology film project designed to showcase a variety of filmmakers telling love-centric, location-specific stories. Paris made an auspicious beginning, featuring contributions from Alfonso Cuarón, the Coen brothers, Tom Tykwer, Gus Van Sant, and Alexander Payne, among others. It’s puzzling, then, that New York, I Love You couldn’t attract anywhere near that level of talent, loading up on second-or-third-tier filmmakers (Shekhar Kapur; Brett Ratner) and the occasional directing actor (Natalie Portman, who starred in Tykwer’s Paris segment; Scarlett Johansson, whose film was cut).
Now the series has arrived at Rio, I Love You (though Tbilisi, I Love You, set in the capital of Georgia, apparently received a VOD-only release in the U.S. last year). Unfortunately, Rio veers closer to New York than Paris in terms of both quality and inability to construct anything like a valentine to its subject (though it’s at least a little weirder than the frequently inane New York). This has little to do with the inherently uneven nature of anthology film; that unevenness can be, in its short-attention-span lottery sort of way, quite engaging. Rather, Rio offers the uncomfortable spectacle of 10 different filmmakers mostly failing to produce a sense of place that can be sustained over 10 minutes, much less multiple senses of place that can be stitched into an interesting patchwork. The major takeaways from Rio about Rio are that it has beaches and homeless people. The slightest tweaking could turn this movie from Rio, I Love You into Beaches, You’re Okay.
The assembled filmmakers are at least more diverse and less disappointing than the New York group. They include Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles (City Of God), Carlos Saldanha (the cartoon movie Rio) and two Rio natives, José Padilha and Andrucha Waddington. The Brazilians are joined by Im Sang-soo from South Korea, Lebanese writer-director Nadine Labaki, Australian Stephan Elliott, Oscar-winning Paolo Sorrentino from Italy, Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, and American weirdo John Turturro.
Some of the names most familiar to U.S. audiences deliver some of the worst bits: The Great Beauty director Sorrentino, fresh off Youth, further muses on aging by looking in on elderly James (Basil Hoffman) and his younger wife Dorothy (Emily Mortimer), and establishes a movie-wide tendency toward bad, exposition-heavy dialogue (“All your health problems and you want to smoke?”) and combining it with his own personal, kind of stupid musings (“As an architect, I believe luck can be designed”), all leading up to a sour sort of-punchline. Turturro, meanwhile, delivers the Romance & Cigarettes follow-up no one asked for, with all of the stagy dialogue and earthy domestic squabbling and little of the sweaty musical chutzpah.
Indeed, many of the shorts favor bad writing over strong filmmaking. One exception is the Meirelles segment, with Vincent Cassel as a sand artist working on the beach. It’s composed largely of shots positioned above or below normal sight lines—some overhead, some ground-level—and accented with blown-out colors and a shifting, percussive score representing various passersby. It’s not very plotty, but feels more like an actual short than almost anything else in the larger film. Animation director Saldanha also makes a play for differentiation with a striking ballet-centric (and dialogue-light) bit, and Im contributes an amusing vampire story.
These three stand out, because as the so-called “cities of love” series has continued, it has developed a strange relationship with its very nature as a series of short film collections. Paris featured some minor linking material in between stylistically distinct films, and New York imposed a framing character on a less distinguished group of shorts. Rio is trickier to figure out; there is semi-connective material credited to director Vicente Amorim, who seems to have been given access to some of the segments’ actors. It’s hard to tell, because the movie introduces a few (but not all) characters before their stories really get underway, sometimes creating the impression that they’re intercut. Instead, they fall confusingly in between, with a few fragments of introductory teases interspersed throughout the film, especially at the beginning.
In a movie by a single filmmaker, this might create a nice rhythm, but these ill-conceived overlaps only make Rio harder to settle into—a disadvantage for a movie telling 10 different stories. The pieces are especially hard to separate this time because most of them cap a style-light few minutes with inconclusive, unsatisfying fade-outs. The final film feels like a producer’s single, unimaginative vision, rather than an appealing omnibus. New York, I Love You failed to recapture the eclecticism that made Paris so special. Rio, I Love You has moved on to actively undermining it.