Like a relationship that suffers far past its expiration date, the “Cities of Love” anthology series is overdue for a serious breakup. “Paris, Je T’aime” had that exhilarating air of new romance, but things quickly became familiar and comfortable – but sadly, not better – with “New York, I Love You.” Times got tough with “Rio, Eu Te Amo.” But now, with “Berlin, I Love You,” it’s hard to remember what you even fell for in the beginning. With the bloom off the rose, it’s time to tell you: it’s not me, it’s most definitely you.
“Paris, Je T’aime” featured some of the best directors working at the time, with Olivier Assayas, Gurinder Chadha, Joel, and Ethan Coen, Isabel Coixet, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, and Gus Van Sant all putting their names on segments. ‘New York’ assembled a slightly lesser but still largely enviable group with names like Allen Hughes, Fatih Akin, Jiang Wen, Mira Nair and, umm, Brett Ratner.
Even ‘Rio’ had Guillermo Arriaga, Nadine Labaki, Fernando Meirelles, José Padilha, Carlos Saldanha, and John Turturro behind the camera. But sadly, the biggest names ‘Berlin’ can muster are Massy Tadjedin and Til Schweiger, along with a bunch of filmmakers you haven’t heard of, not that that’s made a difference in some of the other installments, brand-name filmmakers or otherwise. It’d be admirable if the producers (all 85 of them) had used this as an opportunity to give newcomers a chance to create something fresh, but the delivery here is beyond stale.
As with the other “Cities of Love” films, ‘Berlin’ has a transitional thread running throughout, connecting each piece. Unfortunately, it happens to be one of its least compelling bits. Josef Rusnak directs Rafaëlle Cohen as Sara and Robert Stadlober as a wing-wearing Daniel (in a nod to Wim Wenders‘ “Wings of Desire“), both buskers: she a fresh arrival to the city and he a wary local who’s eager to leave. Cohen and Stadlober are flat, leading us charmlessly through the city like two tour guides hired out of desperation. Peter Chelsom‘s “Berlin Ride” then finds Jarod (Jim Sturgess) inexplicably falling in love with his talking car, and we’re not off to a great start.
The second segment, Tadjedin’s “Under Your Feet,” is the film’s best, casting Helen Mirren and Keira Knightley as a mother and daughter who take in a young refugee (Liam Gross), but then it’s over and you have 90 more minutes of half-baked ideas. The low point comes next in Schweiger’s “Love Is in the Air,” with an aging, but still ripped Jim (Mickey Rourke) seducing pretty young thing Heather (German actress Toni Garrn doing a terrible American accent for some reason) in a Berlin bar. It’s even more squirm-inducing than it sounds, thanks to the script from Neil LaBute. The rest proceeds in a boring blur, with Jenna Dewan and Nolan Funk partnering in Justin Franklin’s “Berlin Dance,” Diego Luna playing a drag queen in Fernando Eimbcke‘s “Sunday Morning” and Dianna Agron and Luke Wilson falling in love, I guess, over a puppet show in Agron’s “Lucinda in Berlin.” It’s all the least romantic thing I can imagine, and I’ve had not one, but two first dates under the florescent lights at Steak ‘n Shake.
‘Berlin’ gives a good enough picture of its host city, delving into its complicated history and giving glimpses of its beauty. But few of the segments connect us to its inhabitants and visitors in any meaningful way. Its characters rarely feel real to the audience, a fault of the many directors, writers, and sometimes, the actors. With this type of film, you only have a few minutes to draw viewers in, and ‘Berlin’ is inadvertently standoffish, pushing us away despite its romantic overtures. We can’t see why these people fall for each other, and the film does nothing to help us out.
Anthology films are always a challenge because it’s hard to make a connecting thread when you suddenly leave the characters. With multiple directors at the helm, you’ll usually get uneven results in quality and tone. “Berlin, I Love You” does manage to be largely consistent; it’s just consistently bad, uninspired and dreadfully flat, so it’s time for the kind of devastating dumping that mercifully takes this series off the dating scene for at least a few years and spares the rest of us. [D]