Woody Allen Can't Be Anyone But Himself in 'Café Society'

Café Society is a competent film, but that's hardly praise for an auteur director like Woody Allen.

Café Society

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Amazon Studios
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-07-15
UK date: 2016-09-02

Since 1977's Annie Hall, Woody Allen has released one film per year. None of Allen's contemporaries come close to stacking up to his oeuvre. Year after year, Allen continues to get A-list stars to sign on to his projects, each of which unfailingly bears his directorial stamps: black-and-white Windsor title cards, semi-autobiographical neurotic protagonists, and a heaping spoonful of self-deprecating Jewish humor. His movies are set in locales across the globe, and in different time periods: in recent years, Allen has fixated on '20s-era Paris in Midnight in Paris (2011) and Magic in the Moonlight (2015).

Because Allen's best films -- Annie Hall, Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) -- are canonical, he still carries weight in the cinematic world, even as he continues on the road to death by self-parody. One can tip his cap to Allen for his workmanlike approach to filmmaking, but a consequence of Allen's one-film-per-year schedule is that each new movie feels more like an obligation than a genuine artistic statement. Woody Allen films exist each year simply because they have to; that's the way it's been for so long now.

Some of Allen's repetitions are charming, those unmistakable title sequences especially. But if there is one dimension of Allen's storytelling that should be done away with for more than aesthetic reasons, it's the prevalence of older men pursuing younger women. Each of Allen's past three films have included an asymmetric age pairing at the heart of their stories. One can debate the merits of Allen's recent pictures, but it's undeniable that his fixation on the older male/younger female romantic match is disconcerting at the least and appalling at the worst, given the context of his personal life.

A review of Café Society, Allen's latest venture, is hardly the place to unspool the complicated details of Allen's abhorrent behavior toward his former adopted stepdaughter Dylan Farrow, nor the questionable circumstances from which Allen became involved with his wife Soon-Yi Previn, a woman nearly 40 years his junior. Café Society is a minor picture in Allen's increasingly large collection of minor pictures, a movie that will ultimately amount to a blip in a filmography of unwieldy proportions. To treat it as the linchpin case of Allen's fixation on women significantly younger than himself would be to elevate an film that's safe and little else.

In Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg steps into the role that many men before him have performed: the thinly veiled Woody Allen figure. Eisenberg a wet-behind-the-ears man named Bobby Dorfman, who moves to Los Angeles from his native Brooklyn in the hopes of getting a job with his uncle, a big-shot Hollywood executive named Phil (Steve Carell). A week into being in Los Angeles, Bobby lays his eyes on Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who he fancies immediately. What Bobby doesn't know is that Vonnie is secretly involved with a much older man: Phil. Stewart and Carell's chemistry is rarely believable; in most scenes when they are together, they look like two strangers impersonating a couple. Allen wrote this love triangle thinking it a point of tension for the story when in actuality it is only there because he felt it had to be there, for no other reason than to advance this shambles of a plot.

There are tertiary plotlines to Café Society's main love triangle that struggle to cohere into one interesting whole. Bobby's brother Ben (the ace supporting player Corey Stoll) is a New York gangster trying to make a name for himself while supporting his family -- and keeping them in the dark. Bobby's sister-in-law Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to a stuffy, generic philosopher named Leonard (a delightfully dry Stephen Kunken); together they struggle with an unruly neighbor who won't give them any piece and quiet. Meanwhile, Bobby, Ben, and Evelyn's parents -- a frantic mother and a snarky father -- worry about their kids. Allen does his best to thread these stories together in a deadpan voiceover narration that's heavy on exposition and light in interest, but these subplots feel more like sideshows to the main event that tries to grab at the audience's attention.

Café Society is not without its merits. Vittorio Storaro's cinemaphotography awash in inviting, lush gold tones, particularly in the Hollywood scenes. Allen and Storaro are adept with a dynamic two-shot, and the scenes with Eisenberg and Stewart on the beach or overlooking a sunset radiate from the screen. A light, jazzy score accents the gilded cinemaphotography in such a way as to make the viewer want to order a martini and pull up a seat alongside these characters. But the visual and aural pleasures of Café Society ultimately highlight just how empty the film's plot is, and how unmemorable its characters are. No in this film turns in a bad performance, but there are is also no one to root for by the time these (thankfully) brief 96 minutes are up.

Allen doesn't just repeat himself in Café Society: he also repeats the message of any number of movies about Tinseltown. Vonnie's duplicity about her relationship with Phil reveals that people in Hollywood are two-faced. Bobby's all-too-brief stint in Los Angeles is a classic case of a dreamer's dreams being crushed by the unforgiving hammer of reality. Café Society is pretty to look at much of the time, but if one comes to this picture in the hopes of something substantive, she's better off with a re-run of a Preston Sturges film on AMC, or a replay of a classic Allen movie.

Everything about Café Society comes back to that: classic Allen. The misty-eyed, "golden age" nostalgia of Café Society is no different from the panegyrics for modernism in Midnight in Paris. The jazzy score, swanky though it is, is par for Allen's course. And then there's that, if you'll forgive the oft-trotted out word, problematic issue of Allen writing relationships where older (and in this case, married) men seek out the affection of women decades younger than themselves. Reading Dylan Farrow's New York Times open letter about Allen, one can't help but wonder when he will get the message.


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