Anchor Bay // 2007 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // March 24th, 2009
Good friends are hard to find.
Prolific actor Frank Whaley (Swimming With Sharks) presents his third film as writer/director, an easygoing look at accepting adulthood.
New York City Serenade follows Owen (Freddie Prinze Jr., She's All That) and Ray (Chris Klein, American Pie), best friends in their late twenties/early thirties who aren't quite sure what they want out of life yet -- or if they do know, they aren't sure they want to do what it takes to get it. Owen is a wannabe filmmaker whose short film has gotten him invited to a festival in Los Angeles; he plans to take his fiancée (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Dark Ride), much to Ray's chagrin.
Ray is a drummer in a rock band, but doesn't actually get paid -- he plays for free drinks -- which makes it hard for him to support his four-year-old daughter. An alcoholic free spirit, Ray has a knack for being both the life and death of the party.
The two men are forced to reevaluate their lives, own up to their choices, and face some hard facts as they experience death, breakups, and a celebrity encounter with Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride).
There is a scene early on where Owen and Ray, along with two others, agree to act as minions at the funeral of a childhood friend's father: they arrive, wearing outfits inappropriate to varying degrees, without a clue what comforting words to offer their comrade. It's kind of funny, kind of sad, and confirmation that these are essentially children in grown bodies, unwilling to live up to society's standards or accept any responsibility that hasn't been forced upon them.
A quirky, surprisingly appealing little film, New York City Serenade balances comedy and melancholy with mostly successful results. The tone of the film swings pretty wildly, especially early on when we're trying to decide if Owen and Ray are supposed to be lovable losers or cautionary tale jerks, but once it settles in to its steady rhythm it's easy to become invested in their exploits and ultimate fates. There is a timeless quality to the story and its plot points (few of the characters carry cell phones, for example), and that helps to make the movie relatable rather than excessively hip.
Despite their age, Ray and Owen are being dragged toward adulthood kicking and screaming, with their own immaturity the source of most of their problems. They careen through their lives like overgrown high school students, Ray holding down a menial job in a photo outlet, taking grief from his manager and showing questionable customer service skills, while Owen sacrifices time with his daughter to perform with his band, and reportedly hasn't held down a job for more than three paychecks in years. They're constantly surprised to learn that their actions have consequences, unable to commit to the simplest of things.
A great achievement of New York City Serenade is that you don't realize just how unlikable you should've found Owen and Ray until after the film is over; the pair has relatively few redeeming qualities. Within the first 20 minutes, Owen has lied to his fiancée to attend a party where his first order of business is to cheat on her, and Ray's seeming disregard for everyone around him, compounded by compulsive drinking, does little to provoke sympathy when he gets a bad beat. While both have their charming moments, they consistently make bad choices, one of which is their self-destructive insistence on remaining friends despite obvious friction in their relationship. What saves these characters from our scorn is writer/director Frank Whaley's refusal to judge them or their actions. Whaley lays them out, warts and all, and lets us watch them eventually find their way. Not everything works all the time: a few of the lines fall flat, and some of the characters' actions don't add up, but overall this is a well-made piece of observational drama.
Prinze Jr. and Klein equip themselves well, committing to their roles and not smoothing out the rough edges. Klein, in particular, shows charisma and range that I've never seen in his past work. Watching his character in this film is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck covered in dancing monkeys -- it's entertaining, and you're not quite sure what will happen next, but you know things will eventually get ugly.
This DVD features a reasonably strong video transfer, although the muted colors don't allow for a lot of "wow" moments. Flesh tones are natural, and shadow detail is sufficient but not exceptional. A few times I noticed a bit of video noise, especially in darker scenes, and some edge enhancement in high contrast areas. Audio is subdued, but nicely showcases Ed Harcourt's excellent music. Dialogue is clear with no tearing. The sound design is subtle but effective.
For extras, we get a chatty, funny, and surprisingly edgy audio commentary with Whaley and several of the supporting actors. They talk mostly about filming conditions and the cast, but it's worth a listen for Whaley's dry jokes throughout. Also included is an informative 15-minute making-of.
Writer and director Frank Whaley has created a small, character-driven comedy/drama that examines friendship, responsibility, and aspiration with New York City Serenade, and in the process has elicited career-best performances from lead actors Chris Klein and Freddie Prinze Jr.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cinema Verdict interview with Frank Whaley