It’s possible to think that writer/humorist Fran Lebowitz is an insightful, fascinating character and still conclude that devoting a seven-part docuseries to her wit and wisdom is a bit much. Netflix let Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” run 3 ½ hours and allows similar excess with “Pretend It’s a City,” the director’s decade-later follow-up to his previous documentary about her, “Public Speaking.”
Mostly, this latest iteration of “The world according to Fran” serves as an ode to New York City, drawing from a private chat with Lebowitz and a series of public ones, included one moderated by Scorsese himself. (The two are friends and he’s her most appreciative audience, issuing an Ed McMahon laugh to almost everything she says.)
“New York is never boring,” Lebowitz observes, and neither is she. Nevertheless, there’s a kind of arbitrary repetition to her freely associated thoughts, complaints and grievances, parrying with audience members, recalling her early days in Manhattan and discussing things like the fact that she hates money but needs it because “I love things.”
Sauntering through town, and occasionally shot standing next to an enormous model of New York just to vary the scenery, Lebowitz fantasizes about splitting the job of mayor with somebody. She volunteers to take the night shift, noting that her anger regarding the way the world operates stems from the fact that “I have no power, but I’m filled with opinions.”
Those opinions are always quotable, and Lebowitz’s commentary ranges from the broadly amusing to the provocative. In the latter category, her discussion of the #MeToo movement exhibits less sympathy for actors, given what everyone knows about Hollywood.
– to her rejection of “guilty pleasures” as a concept. Pleasures, she suggests, shouldn’t be guilty as long as no one gets hurt by them.
A separate dissertation involves the elusive nature of true talent, and her belief – articulated during a stage appearance with Spike Lee – that musicians inspire more passion from their fans than any other arena.
In a subsequent episode, she rejects the notion of ceasing to read writers who are (or were) horrible people, adopting the position that it’s possible to separate the artist from their work. She’s equally dismissive of the concept of “guilty pleasures,” suggesting pleasures shouldn’t evoke guilt as long as no one gets hurt by them.
Scorsese obviously has enough clout that Netflix will give the green light to just about whatever he wants to do, and this exercise – which functions as both a showcase for Lebowitz and a valentine to the New York that was after its hellish run-in with Covid-19 – screams “vanity project” more loudly than most.
“Pretend It’s a City” certainly yields its share of amusing thoughts and wry observations, many of which are worth recording for posterity. But it would take a great pretender to act like it’s worthy of the time devoted to them.
“Pretend It’s a City” premieres Jan. 8 on Netflix.