Francis Ford Coppola’s “New York Stories” Segment: “Life Without Zoe” (1989)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

Director Francis Ford Coppola closed out a particularly brutal decade for his career on a down note, unfortunately.   Having firmly established himself as one of the leading filmmakers in his generation (dubbed the Film Brats due to their being the first wave to come up through the institution of film school), Coppola collaborated with two of his biggest compatriots—Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen—on an anthology filmed named NEW YORK STORIES.  Each director crafted a forty-minute film that expresses their love for the city that never sleeps, but Coppola’s entry– LIFE WITHOUT ZOE– was the least-liked of the bunch.  Granted, it’s easy to be the lesser filmmaker when one is up against the likes of Scorsese and Allen, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE can’t help but feel phoned in at best, and simply awful at worst.

In what could easily be a story devised by Wes Anderson, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE concerns a precocious young socialite named Zoe (Heather McComb) who lives in a hotel with her mother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  She’s got the intellect and wit of a woman twice her age, and commands the unwavering loyalty of her Chanel-clad minions at school.  When a new boy joins their class—an exotic young prince from an oil-rich Middle Eastern nation—the girls get involved with his familial affairs and regard him as a major curiosity.  Meanwhile, Zoe attempts to reconcile her estranged father– a world-famous flutist (Giancarlo Giannini)– and her weary mother (Coppola’s sister Talia Shire).

If that plot sounds a little vague, that’s because the story itself isn’t particularly well-developed.  Coppola shoots from a script he co-wrote with his daughter Sofia (the traits that would later mark her own directorial debut are very noticeable even at an early age here), but the result is indulgent and out of touch.  I’ve previously written about how I admired the fact that Coppola incorporated his family so much into his art, but LIFE WITHOUT ZOE and its successor, 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III, stand as an example of when the practice crossed the line into nepotism and unnecessary indulgence.

The cast is comprised mostly of unknown child actors, but there a few recognizable faces.  The excellent European character actor Giancarlo Giannini (most would recognize him as Mathis in Martin Campbell’s CASINO ROYALE (2006)) is easily the best part of the film.  Shire, who has appeared in all three GODFATHER films, also turns in a great performance as Charlotte, Zoe’s beleaguered mother.  Comedic character actor Chris Elliott makes a small appearance as a robber, and apparently Adrien Brody is in there somewhere, but I never saw him.

Produced by Coppola’s regular partners Fred Roos and Fred Fuchs, LIFE WITHOUT ZOE also retains the services of Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis.  Storaro shoots the 35mm film with an eye for bold colors, striking contrast, and canted camera angles.  Tavoularis’ production design is as reliable as always, but the influence  (some might call it meddling) of Sofia is easily seen via the film’s costumes, which typically are obscenely rich haute couture staples like Chanel and Louis Vuitton awkwardly worn by rich little brats stinking of stale Old Money.

Carmine Coppola scores the film, crafting a very 1990’s-style pop character that evokes Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound”, while also using the flute for whimsical renditions of famous childhood lullabies.  It’s weird, but it fits.

If it weren’t for a few instances of double exposures and crossfade cuts, the film wouldn’t necessarily stand out as a Coppola film.  This is the kind of Coppola that is capable of making JACK (1996), not the Coppola who floored us with THE GODFATHER (1972).  It might very well be the worst thing he’s made yet, but it’s not without its redeeming moments.  The family element of the film is poignant and powerful, especially in the relationship between Zoe and her father.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the fundamental disconnect lies.  For me, it’s the completely alienating tone and setting.  I realize that the upper crust of the Upper East Side is an exclusive world of decadence all its own within a city full of different, contained lifestyles, but I can’t help but only see repulsive, spoiled brats—and not quirky, precocious trendsetters as their makers intended them to be.  There also isn’t a great deal of inspiration driving Coppola here, and it’s always disappointing to see a great filmmaker not giving his best.  Fortunately, his next feature—a return to the venerable GODFATHER franchise—would see Coppola striving to work at top form once again.

LIFE WITHOUT ZOE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray as part of the NEW YORK STORIES anthology film via Mill Creek Entertainment.


Produced by: Fred Fuchs, Fred Roos

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola

Director of Photography: Vittorio Storaro

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Composer: Carmine Coppola, Kid Creole