Recently, two films were released that, as franchise films, resembled other movies that came before them — not through continued plots or characters, but rather by the very broad formulaic similarity of being about… days or places. Yes, both the day films (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Day) and the place films (Paris Je T’Aime, New York I Love You) have another day and place, respectively, on which to project their inchoate and/or schmaltzy stories. The new day is Mother’s, the new place is Rio, and perhaps you’ve already read about or seen these two films, and if you have, know that at least almost every critic, like Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey, is out there with you, mourning this fate with an 8% approval for Mother’s Day and a comparatively great 11% approval for Rio, Eu Te Amo on Rotten Tomatoes.
The movies come from almost opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum — one from a seemingly very well-intentioned, nonprofit based platform for both citywide arts initiatives and a rarely acknowledged form of cinematic storytelling, the other a maker of sentimental McNuggets lazily banking on wildly well-paid Hollywood actors (Julia Roberts made $750,000 per day she worked on Mother’s Day) to sell their litany of scripted clichés. And yet, while the individual stories within Rio, Eu Te Amo might be odder and at times sadder than anything you’ll see in Mother’s Day (though the editing of Mother’s Day is admittedly shockingly odd and sad), they both come across with a transparent air of selling something, even if that something is the multifacetedness and unpredictability of a whole city. How did they end up suffering from the same fate? Going forward, how can the actually very good idea of representing place through short filmmaking (whose potential was, to an extent, actually met in Paris Je T’Aime) be reassessed?
Following Mother’s Day, there’s really no hope in qualitatively (or financially — Mother’s Day seems to have bombed in its opening weekend) saving the Day films — they came with so little promise and so much condescension to begin with, and with their continued release, they seem to be Garry Marshall’s official statement of resignation from any modicum of artistic integrity. They are to film what the nutrition facts on the back of a See’s Candy box are to poetry. Meanwhile, the Cities of Love films are more rife with possibility, and yet have suffered from the same downward spiral as Marshall’s movies.
After the success of Paris Je T’Aime ($17.5 million — pretty good for an independent film), which featured huge name directors like the Coen Brothers, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Alexander Payne, Olivier Assayas, and Gus Van Sant, New York I Love You drew another impressive — though not, across the board, as well-known — group of directors that included Mira Nair, Natalie Portman, Maria Full of Grace‘s Joshua Marston and The Edge of Heaven’s Faith Akin, but earned less than half of the box office success of Paris. Rio, Eu Te Amo has again drawn some vastly renowned directors — from Paolo Sorrentino to John Tutorro to City of God‘s Fernando Meirelles. This film — since its release in South America and Europe in 2014, which came some 18 months before its US release — has made well below a million dollars internationally (the film purportedly cost $20m to make).
Both this and the Days franchise thus seem to be diminishing in relevance and response with each subsequent release. Thankfully, following Mother’s Day, IMDb does not indicate the arrival of any more ensemble day-oriented rom-coms from Garry Marshall, at the moment, but who knows, there’s plenty of tepid romance to be mined from D-Day. However, it seems the “Cities of Love” films won’t stop loving cities any time soon: Tblisi is being loved. Jerusalem and Shanghai will be loved. Rotterdam is being loved, as something of a city-wide initiative, as the Cities of Love project morphs beyond just filmmaking. As their website describes, “the purpose of Cities of Love is to become a non-denominational, apolitical and impactful tool serving harmonious human development and creating a ring of unified cities that care about the course of human history / evolution, and that will exchange best practices.” In other words, beginning with Rio, the films now represent a nonprofit brand that can be licensed to the cities that want them. And such a seemingly nice, government-backed idea for creating a film about all aspects of a city can’t really help being a little toothless.
In Rio, Eu Te Amo, even directors like Fernando Meirelles — who made City of God, one of the most ferocious films about class in Rio — don’t hit the right notes. Meirelles directs Vincent Cassel as a sand sculptor who becomes enamored of a woman’s feet and, um, sculpts some very large sand feet. With so little else to attach themselves to, critics praised Meirelles, for making some “inspired choices with shadows and beats” (and feet) — because pretty much everything else comes across as somehow both a half-baked and heavy-handed. Acclaimed director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth), seemingly obsessed with the plight of old rich men, might actually have provided one of the worst entries, and one that sums up the problem with the film as a whole. Emily Mortimer plays a caricature of a nagging wife to a far older, partially disabled man, who denies him the small pleasures in life, like sugary foods, because of his diabetes. When they go to the beach, her wheelchair bound husband cannot swim. But she — functionally legged, wealthy touristic hussy and withholder of sweets — can, and does, and then seemingly drowns, while the husband subtly revels and begins eating some long-desired sugar.
This short attempts to be funny and saucy but instead employs such lazy gender tropes as to seem a somewhat misogynist morality tale set against the exquisite landscape of Rio. Like the rest of the films, its inability to engage emotionally makes it forgettable, and all that remains is the recollection of how pretty Rio de Janeiro is. Another film attempts to tackle the collision of poverty and tourism in Rio, but ends up being utterly ridiculous; it follows a boxer who lost his arm and rendered his wife disabled in a car-crash. He’s propositioned by a white Brit to fight; if he wins, the wealthy man will pay for his wife to have a rehabilitating surgery; he he loses, his wife will carry the wealthy white man’s child. Most of the films seem to have three goals, none of which quite coalesce, and all of which are trumped by the overarching theme of the first: a) the almost tourist-propagandistic showcasing of the beauty and vitality of Rio; b) doing something, anything, vaguely about love in Rio, and c) least importantly, hitting on some aspect of the social structure of the city. And with each short you can almost see the declaration of what the filmmaker is trying to do with these three goals separately, to the point where even a movie that occasionally confronts the city’s issues with extreme poverty still reads as something of an advertisement more than the exploration it purports to being. The seeming altruistic side of the project risks, of course, less daring filmmaking.
Meanwhile, the corporate machine of Mother‘s Day is coming from a transparently pandering place, as is seen with its cursory tacking of stars to a half-developed, direly white script and one of the worst editing jobs in recent memory. This is not an attempt to revitalize anything but rather to make the film equivalent of a sentimental commodity. Instead of giving mom a card, you can take her to Mother’s Day — on Mother’s Day!
What’s odd is that the nonprofit scrappiness of Rio meets the corporate Hollywood likes of Mother’s Day midway — an independent film that, like the Hallmark card of Mother’s Day, retreats in one’s memory to little more than a postcard. It underscores the problem with each of these franchises and their prompts: that first and foremost they’re about a day or a place — and to an extent selling that day and that place — rather than a series of stories that might just happen to unravel on that day or in that place, and through a slightly less Project Runway prompt-like format, actually reveal something more about said day or place. Going forward — because, indeed, they’re really going forward — the I Love You movies would greatly benefit from a reassessment of their formula. Place is an endlessly fascinating, complex subject, but it’s often not enough to unify films by vastly different creators into an effective whole. Perhaps if each director worked with the same actors or same set of characters on different shorts, as opposed to cursorily creating entirely separate threads, it wouldn’t seem like such a parade of false archetypes to sell something as complex as an entire city. There is a fallacy to these types of ensemble films when they try to be all-encompassing: by featuring four mothers in different plots, you will not represent every mother. By featuring a film across every Rio neighborhood, you will not fully capture the essence of a city with a population of 6 million.