The end result is just bits and pieces that don’t add up to anything.
People who started watching movies for grown-ups in this millennium might be surprised to hear that Woody Allen was known first as an innovative filmmaker with a wicked sense of humor (e.g., What’s Up Tiger Lily? in 1966, Sleeper in 1973), then as a cinematic poet of the human condition (e.g., Annie Hall in 1977, Manhattan in 1979, Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986). He made many more memorable films but at some point became content to crank out a new one every year without worrying too much about whether the end result would be fresh and insightful or a mediocre rehash of bits and pieces of his previous films. Maybe, like Joe Paterno, he believes that if he stops working, he will die. Or maybe he enjoys the process of filmmaking so much that the quality of the final film is less of a concern, particularly since he can coast on a reputation established decades ago.
Allen’s latest film, Cafe´ Society, fits firmly in the mediocre rehash category. I realize that some people will like it for that very reason, but at least you should know what you are getting for the price of your ticket. Allen amassed a good cast of actors and a great technical team for Cafe´ Society, hits on his favorite themes (Jewishness, New York City, show biz, privileged white people who talk a lot, hot young women with much older men), uses his trademark credits font, and sets it all to a jazzy score, but the end result is just bits and pieces that don’t add up to anything. Allen also wrote the screenplay, which is filled with moments that are clearly meant to be clever and funny but fall with a thud.
Allen narrates the film in the tone of someone reading a fairytale, which allows him to tell rather than show while also giving himself an out for every implausibility in the story. The director’s stand-in this time around is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, playing yet another variant of his callow young man character), a kid from the Bronx who decides to try his luck in sunny California. It’s the 1930s, but unlike most dreamers of that or any other time, Bobby has a lot of help—money from his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), which allows him to live very nicely without a paycheck (what he calls a “motel” most people would call a “nicely furnished home”) and an uncle (Phil, played by Steve Carell) who is a big-shot Hollywood agent and eventually gives him a job. There’s nothing Bronx about Bobby—not a trace of an accent, no problems getting around a car-centered metropolis, no awkwardness in mixing with the rich and famous—which is just one among many examples of Allen being content to name things rather than actualize them on screen.
Uncle Phil has a hot secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), or Vonnie for short, whom Bobby quickly falls for (and who wouldn’t? She’s beautiful, charming, and completely undemanding). Vonnie says she’s seeing someone, but they can still be pals; what Bobby learns later is that the someone in question is Uncle Phil, so you might say that Vonnie is a secretary with benefits. Bobby heads back to New York to become a nightclub manager, courtesy of Ben, and of course, he’s immediately successful at that also, because this film is not a bildungsroman but a fantasy of wish fulfillment. Bobby marries another beautiful woman named Veronica (Blake Lively), but the script does nothing with that doubling, making it an example of pointless cleverness. This Veronica loves Bobby, and they have children, but he’s still carrying the torch for Veronica #1 and, since he always gets a free pass, thinks not about his many blessings but only about the one thing he doesn’t have. Neither does Bobby stop to think about the fact that, unlike him, Vonnie #1 might actually have had to make her own way in the world or that as a woman she had a lot fewer opportunities open to her than he did.
Even for Woody Allen, this is a very talky picture. To create the illusion of being in Hollywood, people constantly drop the names of stars and moguls, which is much easier than actually portraying them on screen. In New York, the talk is dominated by family squabbles and two-bit philosophizing, neither of which is particularly convincing. Like most of Allen’s pictures, it’s set in a lily-white world, with the only people of color appearing in a scene set in a jazz club, but why change the formula at this point in your career?
Most of Café Society is bathed in a nostalgic golden glow, thanks to the expertise of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, but this serves no expressive purpose—the lighting is the same whether Bobby is flying high or having his heart broken and whether he’s in Hollywood or New York. The key exception to this rule is the scenes set in the Bronx homes of his family members, which are given a more washed-out palette, presumably because their lives are not nearly as radiant as Bobby’s. The costuming by Suzy Benzinger and production design by Santo Loquasto are both excellent, as always, but their expertise makes the narrative effort look all the more shabby by contrast. | Sarah Boslaugh