Jan 1, 2011

New Year's Day (1989)


January 1st is the first day of the new year, and for many, the first day of a new life-- when people resolve to make changes to their current situations.  Yet for some, despite their ambitions to change, there is still an uncertainty as to where to go from here.  Such are the confusions of the four lead characters in writer-director Henry Jaglom's New Year's Day.  Jaglom also stars as Drew, a late forty-ish writer who moves to New York on January 1, to begin a new life as he's tired of being miserable in LA.  However, he discovers that the previous female tenants still have not moved out, as they believed their lease to state that they could stay there "through the first."  The remainder of the film consists of Drew's observing and interacting with the three roommates, until everyone goes their separate ways after this one day.  Since this is a Henry Jaglom film, the three women are all neurotic as hell.  Winona (Melanie Winter) wants to have a three-month old baby next New Year's Day, however has no idea who the father will be; the clingy, unbalanced Annie (Gwen Welles) mostly cries about the girls' separation; and Lucy (Maggie Wheeler, billed here as Maggie Jakobson), seems to be the catalyst for the womens' departure, as she wants to escape New York for LA. 

New Year's Day is structured much like his previous two pictures which likewise probed the hang-ups of lonely, frustrated people (Always; Someone To Love).  These pictures all work better when they're smaller- analyzing only a handful of people.  All of these movies have a weak second act when the typical Jaglom stock company of philosophers and hangers-on show up to banter about life, love and everything.  In this film, we see a revolving door of people who drop in on the ladies for their final day together, including Lucy's parents (separately), various middle-aged academics that naturally these wounded females swoon for, and especially Lucy's ex boyfriend (David Duchnovy in his film debut).

Typically in Jaglom, the experiment is more interesting than the result.  Seemingly shot with a big flow chart demonstrating whom the characters will meet with, and having only a few scenes worked out in advance, the actors were given to improvise, and bring a little of themselves to the scenes. His films usually blur that thin line between "real life", "reel life", narrative and documentary.  This results with segments playing out in roving master shots, with mismatched cut-ins; while technically this may look poor, understandably, Jaglom is foregoing polish to capture a realism not found in a conventionally scripted movie.  The movie experience is further blurred with a choppy structure and story continuity (how long does the delivery guy stay there?).   But even so, one questions exactly how much freedom Jaglom gives to his players (or characters, or both).  Once one observes his work as a whole, it always seems that his scenarios involve whiny, neurotic females, seldom more formidable than wounded little creatures. (Is it any accident that Winona is given the less screen time of the three women?  She's the only one who seems to have confidence in her future plans, no matter how shallow they may be.)   While one commends Jaglom for making so many films with female protagonists, they appear less like an honest presentation of women, than a male's stereotypical view of how he thinks females should talk and feel.  (To his credit, Jaglom's work from 1995 onwards seems to portray stronger female characters, perhaps due to the participation of his wife Victoria Foyt.)

The movie is largely seen through Drew's eyes (the film is bookended with Drew discussing this day to the camera), as he observes and interacts with the people who mysteriously blur in and out of the ladies' final day together.  If anything, his slightly creepy character seems to blend well with this room of neurotics and social misfits.  And since Drew is played by the writer-director, one needs not wonder why he gets to snuggle with Lucy.  Hey, if Gene Wilder and Woody Allen can write themselves scenes with gorgeous women, why can't he?

One admires Jaglom's ability to make the viewer like a fly on the wall- only gradually do we figure out people's connections with one another, just as one would in real life, as there is no expository dialogue which reveals these things early for the convenience of the viewer.   And despite that this film takes place in one apartment (save for its opening shot in the lobby, and a few pans by the window looking into the snowy street), few films capture urban loneliness as well as this.  Jaglom's work indeed has its virtues, although one must surely work to obtain.  Nonetheless, New Year's Day is more approachable and entertaining than others of his oeuvre.  

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