Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016)
With almost fifty feature films to his name, writer/director Woody Allen is nothing if not extremely prolific. Now 80 years old, he has managed to crank out a movie a year – more or less – since the early 1970s. He is truly a marvel of productivity and endurance. He is also a man with a troubled personal history that can complicate his life’s work, for some (as it should, perhaps). Cinematically speaking, the more troubling issue, for me, is that this once-great cineaste no longer creates art that is anything more than a recycling of his past ideas. He’s come upon a neat trick, however, which is to each time hire a world-class cinematographer to shoot the affair, thereby guaranteeing that the tired clichés on screen will at least look gorgeous. This time around, it’s the legendary Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor) who does the honors, and what aesthetic marvels there are in Café Society owe their existence almost entirely to him. That’s not to say that the movie is devoid of any other charm – Allen is too good of a writer to be incapable of not producing some watchable scenes – but the overall affair feels so flat and uninspired that one wonders how long Allen’s former (well-earned) reputation as a master of his craft will continue to afford him opportunities to direct. Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters are two of my favorite films of all time – with many others of his among my runners-up – but even when Allen produces something more original these days, such as Blue Jasmine, it’s still but a pale reflection of the masterpieces of yore.
As with most Allen movies that no longer star Allen, himself, we need a surrogate for the director. Here, that role is fulfilled by the ever-reliable Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour), who plays Bobby, a young and bored New Yorker, son of a jeweler, who comes out West, to Hollywood, for something new. The time – though never explicitly stated – appears to be the late 1930s, and Bobby’s maternal uncle just happens to be a movie mogul, one Phil Stern (Steve Carell, The Big Short). A busy man, Phil puts Bobby off for weeks, but eventually brings him into the studio fold, where Bobby meets Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), with whom he promptly falls in love. Of course it’s a match doomed to failure – since that is so frequently Allen’s stock in trade – but the milieu and characters allow the director to indulge his penchant for (here) ostensibly witty banter and movie lore. When the plot switches back to New York – Allen’s once-favored stomping grounds before he moved things abroad for a while, starting with Match Point, in 2005 – we get a different setting and a different woman (Blake Lively, The Age of Adaline) with some passable moments and others that recall better scenes in earlier films. Fortunately, there’s Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) around, as Ben, Bobby’s older brother (and a violent gangster) to steal every scene he’s in and provide the movie’s best moments, by far, but there is too little of him to justify the rest.
Eisenberg and Stewart deserve better, though I do not, for one minute, buy her in this period drama, since there’s something in her elocution and body movements – at least as directed by Allen – that screams 21st century. But she’s a fine actress, and otherwise well-paired with her co-star, who brings his trademark intelligence and intensity to the role of a man adrift between cities, coasts and lovers. If only they could leave behind the regurgitated scraps of Allen’s tired situations and find a better cuisine on which to feast, their “café society” environment might resonate with greater meaning. As it is, I recommend looking for a better restaurant.