Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 22, 2016 5:20 am 
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Location: California/NYC

The gulf between the coasts

Woody Allen's Café Society, which opened the 2016 Cannes festival, is beautiful, and you want to love it, but it lets you down over time. Its Thirties trappings initially delight. The clothes, the cars, the houses, grand old movie palaces, dive-y classic jazz bars and glamorous restaurants - are photographed and lit to perfection by Vittorio Storaro, who shot The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now. The cast is excellent, except for the choice for protagonist of Jesse Eisenberg, who looks scrawnier and more awkward than usual in Thirties suits. Jesse may be quintessentially nerdy and Jewish, and so a perfect Woody surrogate, but he very often plays gratingly smug and self-centered characters. It's hard to like him or believe all the great things that happen to him.

The voiceover that carries the action rapidly along is Woody's own. And there is where the trouble comes in - the implausible, manipulative plot that sets up a lot of stuff but doesn't deliver a satisfactory resolution, and has at its center a character we don't really like or care about. Because after all, he's not really Woody Allen, is he? (If we even still care about Woody: maybe we don't; but the French do. It's impressive how much the French critics admire this film, and how cruel the American ones are toward it.)

What happens is that Bobby (Eisenberg) doesn't want to work at his father's Bronx hardware business, so he goes to Hollywood to work for his uncle Phil Stern (a brittle, opaque Steve Carrell), a highly successful agent whose life is a round of parties, stars, and deals. Phil assigns his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), conveniently, to show Bobby the town, and he instantly falls for her. The crux of the plot is a hidden triangle. While Vonnie reluctantly gets involved with Bobby, she's also secretly seeing Phil, a married man with kids. When it all comes out, with Phil wavering back and forth over leaving his wife for her but finally deciding to do so, she chooses him.

Bobby, though he's been successful at mingling in the world of glamorous Hollywood, decides to return to New York to work in a new club started by his gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll, who, like Kristen Stewart, seems a little modern for this milieu). It's an El Morocco lookalike, called Le Tropique. With Bobby as its impresario - nerdy as ever, now looking older and curiously robotic in glitzy evening clothes - it is a huge success, even more after Ben goes to jail. Among all the fabulous and rich people a beautiful classy woman just jilted by her husband, named Veronica like Vonny (Blake Lively) falls into Bobby's lap and they marry.

Implausibly - but it's all that - Bobby's ordinary middle class Jewish family has never realized that Ben is a complete gangster, constantly icing his enemies and burying them in cement by the river, a fate he imposes even upon their obnoxious, noisy neighbor, who mysteriously disappears. Ben is a device that's used and thrown away when he gets caught and sent to the electric chair, his ashes scattered on a plot in front of his favorite whorehouse.

Though Vonny and Phil stay married in Hollywood and Bobby and Veronica stay married in New York, Vonny and Bobby still carry the flame for each other, as becomes clear when the Hollywood couple comes to New York and Vonny and Bobby have a romantic evening together - dinner, a jazz club, a crap game in the outer boroughs, a carriage ride at dawn in Central Park ending in a speech praising the city. The movie ends with parallel shots at New Year's Eve parties with Vonny in Hollywood and Bobby in Manhattan, each of them with a faraway look, thinking wistfully of the other. But so what? Café Society never acquires enough depth or emotional complexity for this longing to resonate, and we feel cheated.

Allen has only used the love triangle, Vonny, Bobby, and Phil, as a device around which to spin the East and West Coast milieux, the down-to-earth, gemütlich Bronx Jewish family of Bobby's roots, the glamorous night club Bobby winds up running, and Thirties Hollywood when movies were really movies, stars were really stars. These trappings overwhelm the story. Everything remains artificial. The gangster brother, Ben, is a bombshell of a plot device whose ill use reveals the superficiality of the movie's construction. A better film would have made something powerful and interesting out of this gangster family member, instead of merely using him as a convenient, colorful accessory.

Woody delights in throwing around the details of glamor and scandal of Hollywood and Manhattan in this era throughout the film; he is as glib and fluent and knowledgeable as ever though at Cannes he proclaimed with a certain alarm that he is now eighty. There are a number of funny throwaway lines around Jewishness, and Bobby's mom spouts phrases in Hebrew or Yiddish: but this too is just part of the decor, it seems. Sometimes the whole point seems to be to celebrate places and times, when Vonny shows Bobby the mansions of stars or they years later go on their secret glamorous date in Manhattan. Phil's office, with its big Thirties deco paintings, is ravishing. And so it makes sense that Storaro did the cinematography.

The look of things is a huge element. This is why it's a shame that the main character has dull kinky hair and a face like a wrinkled-up waffle. Eisenberg and Stewart played together before in American Ultra, and in some of their scenes they both give their all, and actually have some chemistry, or at least a nice rhythm. Not enough to really matter, though. Likewise Blake Lively is generous and fresh in her first scenes with Eisenberg and it makes the relationship click: but the characters acquire no depth. There is no way that the love-longing that is the movie's final note can have the resonance it should.

Café Society, 93 mins., debuted as the opening night film at Cannes May 2016. It showed at a few other film festivals. It opened theatrically in the US 15 July 2016.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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