I don't even remember how this ended up in our Netflix queue, but somehow it bobbed to the top, so we watched it tonight. Might have had something to do with this one, which seemed to sort of be in the same ballpark; anyway, it was one of the few Scorsese films I hadn't seen, so I was game.
I can see why it bombed. For me, it has nothing to do with the staginess of the sets (no problem). It's all about lame dialogue and zero chemistry between the leads.
Most of DeNiro's and Minelli's scenes together feel half improvised, and I don't mean that in a good way: they both repeat and restate, gesture and hem the way some actors do when they're improvising and the words aren't coming quite as fast as the feeling. So instead of '40s-style snappy dialogue we get '70s-style Method growling.
DeNiro, in fact, becomes downright irritating, fairly quickly. Neither character has any depth, but his Jimmy Boyle is abrasive and at times scary (Taxi Driver hangover) when he's (probably) meant to be comic and half-charming. Liza's Francine Evans isn't much better, but in her case it's because she's given so little to say. She spends most of the film gazing doe-eyed at Jimmy, for reasons beyond the viewer's comprehension.
By the time the big musical medley starts, you're certainly ready for it. Unfortunately, you're so tired that any goodwill it sparks dies out pretty quickly.
And then there's the song. It's an undeniable pop masterpiece, instantly recognizable and impossible to get out of your head. Unfortunately it makes no sense in the context of the movie. Jimmy's supposed to be a bebop-loving jazzer, and yet when he writes a melody, it comes out a flouncy showtune? Okay, sure, he's supposed to be writing it for Francine, so maybe he's writing it to be something she could sing in her act - except nothing in Jimmy's character leads us to believe he has any clue as to what Francine could or would sing. He's too self-centered. He'd only write the kind of thing he'd want to play. And that wouldn't be "New York, New York."
In most movie musicals this kind of absurdity wouldn't matter. But from Martin Scorsese, I expect better.