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Autumn in New York

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There's nothing like summer in Manhattan to make you wish for the pleasures of fall. The trees in Central Park changing color. Cool winds rustling your hair. The smell of roasting chestnuts.

There's nothing like "Autumn in New York," however, to bring you back to sticky reality and the realization that it's still awful August — the time when movie studios start clearing off their shelves as fast as they can.

Whatever that smell is in the air, it's not chestnuts.

Poor "Autumn in New York" was once meant to be a high-profile romance, with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder as its starry lovers, and movie fans sick of sci-fi and action flicks as its grateful audience. Then someone at the studio actually took a look at the thing and decided to dump it, without screenings.

In some ways, that's unfair — "Autumn in New York" isn't laughably, excruciatingly bad (at least, compared to some of the movies MGM has screened recently). Gere is more engaging than ever, and the Manhattan locations are lovely.

Its story, however, is strictly from hunger. Gere is a fiftyish restaurateur with an eye for the ladies; Ryder is the 22-year-old avant-garde hat designer (no, I'm not kidding) for whom he falls at first gaze. But age cannot wither their attraction, nor stale their oh-so-cute kisses — even though Gere has been cruising the dating lanes for so long that Ryder's mother had a crush on him nearly 30 years ago.

"We danced a couple of times, yes," Gere admits when found out.

"And now you're dancing with me," Ryder observes. "How weird is that?"

Pretty amazingly weird, actually, unless you're the director of "Manhattan," but "Autumn in New York" has other things on its mind besides intergenerational romance and incest-by-proxy. And one of them is that old friend-and-foe of Hollywood romances, the tragic-yet-nondisfiguring Movie Disease.

Ryder's the one who has it, of course, and its symptoms seem to include adorable winces, breathy giggles and a tendency to say "Wow." At times she's so infantile, you expect the police to swoop down and arrest Gere on a morals charge. When she was a teenager, Ryder used to project an almost preternatural maturity; now that she's supposedly grown-up, however, she stamps through movies like this or "Girl, Interrupted" like some tiff-throwing debutante.

Joan Chen, who directed this bit of nonsense after making the gritty "Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl," certainly deserves better. This movie, however, deserves less, although Chen gives it all the thought and artistry she can. The film's many sets are filled with mirrors, glass beads and crystal sculptures, as if to show the fragility of life; her director of photography, Changwei Gu — the brilliant cinematographer of "Farewell, My Concubine" — fills the screen with mists and magical reflections.

But there's nothing magical about the romance in "Autumn in New York," and nothing even very tragic about its love affair. It's just the same old boy-meets-girl story, except the boy is rich and old and the girl is young and sick. You can predict it all right down to the second-act breakup, and before too long, you'll be the one wanting to pull the plug.

"This was a mistake from the beginning," Gere declares, an hour into the film. "You're a kid. I'm a creep. You have better things to do with your time!"

Well, yeah, we do, and thanks for the warning, Richard. But couldn't you have told us all that before we sat down?

"Autumn in New York" is rated PG-13 for some strong language and soft-focus sex scenes. Running time: 105 minutes.