Review: 'Pretend It's a City' celebrates wit of Fran Lebowitz

Martin Scorsese delights in fellow New Yorker's caustic observations

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“Pretend It’s a City,” Martin Scorsese’s six-part documentary appreciation of Fran Lebowitz, is more than merely delightful, although it’s certainly that. It’s also something of a historical document.

First, who’s Fran Lebowitz? She was a witty writer in the '70s and '80s who became a pop culture fixture in New York City. She’s hardly written anything since the '90s but has become famous for her frank, cutting wit on talk shows and in speaking engagements. Basically she makes her living mouthing off and she’s really good at it.

Fran Lebowitz in "Pretend It's a City."

The show, broken into half-hour episodes, is ostensibly about Lebowitz’s relationship with New York, where she’s lived for the past five decades, although she spouts off on pretty much anything. Still, it’s anchored in the city and shot before the current pandemic. In many ways it’s referring to New York in Before Times.

At age 70 Lebowitz Is also somewhat Before Times. She recalls things — movie theaters advertising air conditioning, cars without seat belts, people smoking-smoking-smoking — only a baby boomer would. “When we were little children there were no seat belts in cars. Where did we sit? In the front seat on the laps of our smoking mothers,” she says. It’s doubtful many people under age 50 remember such a world.

Scorsese’s camera follows Lebowitz as she trudges about the city, looking askance at nearly everyone and everything. “I always used to be easily annoyed but now I’m just in a constant state of rage,” she explains. There are excerpts from talk shows and live appearances where she expounds on everything from sports (she hates them) to transportation (“It would take one subway ride for the Dalai Lama to turn into a lunatic raging person”).

It’s obvious Scorsese adores her. “Bad habits can kill you but your good habits won’t save you,” Lebowitz says. But there’s a twinkle behind her fatalistic wit. It’s easy to see why Scorsese wanted to put her time in a cinematic bottle.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

'Pretend It’s a City'