Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cafe Society Movie Review

There’s not much left for Woody Allen to say in his movies, is there? He’s already been walking the same ground for decades, hitting the same themes and even repeating (or so it feels) zingers and one-liners. After fifty plus films in as many years, how could he not? He puts out a new movie every year like clockwork. Sometimes it’s as if he’s going through the motions and occasionally he gives us something inspired, as with Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine. His latest is Café Society, which is far better than the recent misfire of Magic in the Moonlight but still falling short of genuine genius.


Returning, as he so often does, to the 1930s, that period Allen so esteems for its art and culture, he has the opportunity to touch on the Golden Age of Hollywood by taking his main character, Bobby Dorfman (played by Jesse Eisenberg) to Los Angeles. Allen gets to name drop the big stars of the day and even incorporate the occasional film clip. Bobby decides to leave his father’s jewelry business behind in New York to try his hand in the movie business, asking his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big time agent to get him started.

He’s not entirely seduced by the glitz and glamor, probably because he lives in a shabby hotel and his own uncle is so lost in the phoniness he can’t even get a meeting with him for three weeks. But he does fall instantly for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the down-to-earth and beautiful secretary in his uncle’s office. They hit it off and would be considered to be dating if she didn’t already have a boyfriend. Sorry to spoil it if you don’t see it coming a mile away, but the boyfriend is Phil, who has vowed to leave his wife, but then can’t, and later will, and then does.

It sure feels like we’ve seen this story before in an Allen film. But typically the catch would be that the Phil character is a total cad and keeps stringing Vonnie along. I mean, he’s a cad for cheating, but he’s not a total disgrace. You can see in Carell’s performance and the way Allen has written it that he really loves his wife, but he is also crazy about Vonnie. And after he chooses his wife, Vonnie falls back on Bobby, who has been reliably there and sweet and flattering all the time. Can you blame her? He starts talking about marriage and a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Again, you know where this is headed and eventually Bobby returns to New York alone.

There’s an uneven quality to the movie, however, because Allen spends so much time on Bobby’s family in New York. His parents (played by Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin) bicker like great New York Jews. Berlin is hilarious. Allen writes the lines, but she has her mother’s gift for selling comedy. Bobby’s sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to Leonard (Stephen Kunken), a bookish intellectual who represents the flip side of might-makes-right. He wants every disagreement with an unruly neighbor to be settled with logic and reason. Eldest brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is a gangster tough guy who uses strong-arm tactics to get what he wants.

The family scenes make for some great entertainment, but there’s a thematic disconnect between the two stories. In the past, Allen has expertly tied together two stories as in Crimes and Misdemeanors. But I can’t quite make out the connection between a tale of love and the darker elements of gangster life and the philosophical questions of when and if to use force. I guess there’s an argument to be made for the connection between the illogic of falling in love and Leonard’s insistence on resolving all disputes with one method when nothing in romance is ever resolved the same way. I find that to be a tenuous connection and one that isn’t fully developed if that was Allen’s intention.

It may be that Allen just needed a way to have Bobby become a big shot nightclub owner, a gig he gets through Ben’s business dealings. When you match that against the unbelievability of Vonnie being so crazy in love with Phil (there’s an unestablished motivation if ever there was one), the only answer is that it’s a plot convenience, which is cheap and unexpected from a writer as skilled as Allen.

This might be one of the most beautiful movie’s Allen has made. He hired Vittorio Storaro as his cinematographer. Here’s a man who has won three Oscars making some of the most gorgeous images in the history of the medium and he’s working with Woody Allen on simple little character comedy-drama. Storaro has worked on epics and even here he applies his master skill, imbuing the L.A. scenes with the reddish golden hues of sunsets. It’s a palette that seems so unnaturally beautiful that it calls to attention the very fake nature of the movie business that Allen spends some of screenplay skewering. In the New York scenes he highlights the glamor of high society and makes the streets gritty. And this is all not to mention that the camera spends more time in motion in Café Society than in any other Allen film I can recall. It’s the first time I noticed Allen’s choices of camera placement and staging, suggesting that his matchup with one of the best directors of photography has helped make him, at 80 years old, an even better director.

Here's where Allen really hooked me, though. He pairs Bobby up with Veronica (Blake Lively, a vision of stunning beauty), a divorcee, and they get along great and fall in love and get married and have kids. The whole thing. Yet every time Vonnie comes to New York with husband Phil, she and Bobby reconnect. They each love their spouses, but there’s an undeniable magnetism between them. Allen is exploring this romantic idea that some people just remain in your heart forever. And Bobby, who felt jilted and resentful of her when she chose another man, reaches a beautiful moment of reflection in the end where he should now be considering how difficult her decision was now that he absolutely loves Veronica, but could easily choose to leave her for Vonnie. There’s this realization that other people have complex emotions and you aren’t the only one with needs and feelings. Allen has often revealed his romantic side and has just as often found justification for infidelity in his characters. I think it’s a subject he must struggle with in his life and Café Society is maybe the first time where he takes a very unselfish point of view.

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