‘Rio, I Love You’
Directors: many of them
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Harvey Keitel
2 (out of 5) Globes
Like a political do-gooder with more heart than sense, French producer Emmanuel Benbihy’s “Cities of Love” anthology movies — “Paris, Je T’aime,” “New York, I Love You” and the new “Rio, I Love You” — mean well. They’re city symphonies that don’t keep to the swanky areas common to cinema; they cover everything, including the nitty-gritty and the areas where the city has failed its people. And they each marshal the forces of the globe’s most revered (or at least name-brand) filmmakers, each given carte blanche to strut their stuff. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice they tend to be a collection of lackluster (or worse) shorts, offering viewers the chance to see famous filmmakers whiff it good. They’re the equivalent of throwing lots of money at a problem and only making it worse.
In the case of “Rio, I Love You,” the stakes are higher. Paris and New York are sources of high economic disparity and social ills, but they have nothing on the Brazilian hotspot, where wondrous beauty is literally overshadowed by the favelas, where the impoverished and ignored rise up into the hills. The slums barely figure into the film’s 10 shorts, and when any of them addresses the income gap they tend to romanticize poverty, or even mate it cute.
That’s the case with the opening short, from Andrucha Waddington — one of four Brazilian natives mixing it up with directors imported from all over. Oscar nominee Fernanda Montenegro (“Central Station”) plays not just a homeless woman but a willfully homeless woman, who has chucked the trappings of bourgeois life to live, happy but dirty, on the street. That might be less of a problem if it wasn’t one of the few films to really portray poverty, though even the others that do tend to paint in broad strokes. One segment features a Pele-idolizing slum kid convinced a Hollywood actor (Harvey Keitel) has put him in touch with a wish-granting God. Later, in one directed by another Brazil native, Jose Padilla (“Bus 47,” the “RoboCop” remake), a hangglider will interrupt his scenic soar over the city to ham-fistedly curse the iconic giant Jesus statue for allowing parts of the city to fall into misery and violence. It’s as though it was trying to cram all the film’s social justice into one, artless rant and get it over with.
The rest are mere tourist jaunts, with filmmakers so divorced from the realities of the city their work could take place anywhere. Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) mostly uses a random secluded beach to stage a sour one-joke ditty (two jokes, if you count a Viagra name-drop) about a wheelchair-bound depresso (Basil Hoffman) grumpily dealing with his cranky trophy wife (Emily Mortimer). John Turturro uses an anonymous shack for a sweary couple’s tiff that plays like the un-asked-for, non-musical sequel to his “Romance and Cigarettes.” You can give local Carlos Saldanha — of the “Rio” animated films — a pass for sticking dancers on a stage, as the results are striking and charming and at least borne out of the nation’s arts.
Did the idea of choosing international auteurs to invade a city — one they might not know very well — backfire? Perhaps, though it’s South Korea’s Im Sang-soo (“A Good Lawyer’s Wife,” “The Housemaid”) who most engages with the culture, and during a silly vampire romp, which ends with a charming and infectious impromptu group dance in the city streets.
Would this have worked when the “Cities of Love” series kicked off? “Paris, Je T’Aime” was able to summon (deep breath) Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen brothers, Olivier Assayas, Gus Van Sant and Alexander Payne, to say nothing of Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer, Sylvain Chomet, Christopher Doyle and Vincenzo Natali. There’s been a brain-drain since — “New York, I Love You” included a short by Bret Ratner — and with “Rio” they’ve had to settle for Guillermo Arriaga (author of “21 Grams” and “Babel”) and, semi-randomly, Stephan Elliott, of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Still, even “Paris” found terrific filmmakers stumbling, as though Benbihy had give them so much freedom they often barely tried. Benbihy had a good idea but not the muscle to make sure his employees would make shorts that say something, anything about their respective locales — or, failing that, just good movies.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge