Saturday, August 13, 2016

Café Society

CAFÉ SOCIETY       B-            
USA  (96 mi)  2016  d:  Woody Allen                Official site [France]

While Woody Allen has traveled the world making films, taking his talents to London, Barcelona, Paris, and Rome after earlier affirming his existence in his hometown of New York, this is his first venture into the glamorous world of Hollywood on the West Coast, previously foreign territory for this director and a place he adamantly refuses to visit when they’re handing out Academy Awards.  Appropriately, he bathes this venture in a golden hue of the past, featuring the exploits of cinematographer extraordinaire Vittorio Storaro, notable for the ravishing look of The Conformist (Il Conformista)  (1970) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), though shot digitally this time, creating a nostalgic tribute to a golden era of Hollywood, much as he did to Paris in Midnight in Paris (2011).  Marking the third time an Allen film has opened the Cannes Film Festival, the event was met with an article penned by Allen’s own son Ronan Farrow (though some believe Frank Sinatra may be his biological father) in The Hollywood Reporter, May 11, 2016 (My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked (Guest ...) reminding the world about the lingering sex abuse allegations made by his sister Dylan, claiming Allen molested her in 1992 when she was just seven years old, damning accusations that should appall the world, charges that Allen has vehemently denied, yet somehow he remains free to pursue his own interests as criminal charges were never filed due to the fragile state of the victim who remained traumatized afterwards.  Dylan revived her accusations in a letter to the New York Times February 1, 2014 (An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow - The New York Times), which was followed by a strong rebuke by Allen a week later, Woody Allen Speaks Out - The New York Times, and a summation of the charges in an article by Maureen Orth in Vanity Fair, February 7, 2014 (10 Undeniable Facts About the Woody Allen Sexual-Abuse Allegation ...).  While there may never be a resolution to this matter, it leaves behind a moral stain that will always be associated with this director, where some refuse to see his films, as evidenced by this Melissa Silverstein article written for The Guardian, May 12, 2016 (Why I won't be seeing Woody Allen's new film | Melissa Silverstein ...).  Actors working with Allen have to come to terms with this issue when deciding whether or not to work with him, as Rosie O’Donnell for one has refused to work with him, though she was the initial choice for the lead in SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999), yet so far, he has always had the cream of the crop at his disposal, with premiere artists literally flocking to work with him.  Nonetheless, this murky past figures prominently in each and every Allen film, especially when the films themselves push the boundaries on moral transgressions, perhaps inadvertently exaggerating the nature of the offense, creating extremely uncomfortable moments for the audience that exist with no other director.  How ironic, then, that Allen is a comedy writer, as there is an underlying element of personal tragedy linked throughout all his works that might more accurately be described as Greek tragedy. 

Another mixture of comedy and pathos, Allen himself at age 80 voices the inner narration heard throughout, the first instance since RADIO DAYS (1987), though he’s not immediately recognizable, as one of the weaknesses of the film is the hollow sound quality of the narration itself which sounds as if recorded in a tunnel.  Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasant experience to hear Allen voicing his own films, and not just have various characters essentially assume his voice, as the autobiographical description reflects his singular wit and humor, especially as he introduces new characters in the film.  Opening in the Bronx during the 1930’s, the exact circumstances of Allen’s own birth, accompanied by the upbeat jazz riffs of Vince Giordano’s The Lady is a Tramp - YouTube (3:50) and Benny Goodman’s I Didn't Know What Time It Was - Benny Goodman - YouTube (3:19), one would have no recollection that we’re right in the middle of the Depression as Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) grows weary of his bickering parents, as he’s fed up working at his father’s jewelry store and leery of going into business with his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a rumored gangster who always brings home a fistful of cash, whose trigger happy inclinations serve as comic relief, while his constantly complaining sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is already married off to Leonard (Stephen Kunken), a serious-minded, professorial New York Communist Jew.  Naïve and optimistic, yet wanting more out of life, he seeks the big dreams of Hollywood, where his mother Rose, Jeannie Berlin, daughter of Elaine May and so powerful in Margaret (2011), calls in a favor from her Hollywood hotshot brother Phil (Steve Carell, originally slated to be Bruce Willis, but he was quickly fired), a hugely successful agent to the stars (who never utters a sentence without namedropping an A-list celebrity), hoping he can find Bobby a job.  Amusingly, Phil surrounds himself with luxury, constantly traveling and attending swanky parties, remaining so tied up with work that Bobby continually gets the brush off, as it’s literally weeks before he can even get an appointment.  When he does, the office is so huge that families of ten could live inside it, suggesting his ego is even more inflated.  Taking him under his wing, he introduces Bobby to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and instructs her to show him around town, turning this into a period costume drama bathed in a continuous stream of jazz music.  Noticeably brighter from the constant sunshine, the mood of the film elevates as well, as the two kids aren’t particularly impressed by the wretched display of extravagant wealth in Beverly Hills, preferring instead each other’s company where the is an ease and non-pretentious air about their developing friendship, much as there was when working together in Adventureland  (2009), exhibiting a screwball style of comedy, though she acknowledges already having a boyfriend.  When Phil throws one of those extravagant Hollywood parties at his home, viewed as a mansion among rows of other mansions, Bobby meets some fellow New Yorkers, Rad Taylor (Parker Posey, bubbly as ever), who runs a bi-coastal modeling agency and her husband Steve (Paul Schneider), quickly becoming fast friends.  

While watching movies at Grauman’s Chinese Theater like Barbara Stanwyck in THE WOMAN IN RED (1935) or running to the beach in Santa Monica, Bobby can’t get enough of Vonnie (short for Veronica), falling head over heels, though he’s something of a klutz, while she clings to her longstanding relationship that is a soap opera in itself, remaining so secretive that Bobby hasn’t a clue, exposing a bizarre love triangle where a nephew is competing against his uncle for the same girl, with Uncle Phil promising to leave his wife, but backs down at the last moment, opening the door for Bobby who dreams of swooping her back to New York, thinking they can live in the Village and start life anew.  Riding a rollercoaster of mood shifts and changing allegiances, the gist of it is Phil ultimately changes his mind, leaving Bobby heartbroken when Vonnie chooses him, like it initially plays out in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) with Shirley MacLaine running away with her boss on New Year’s Eve, similarly referenced here in the final scene.  Limping back to New York with his tail between his legs, he goes into the nightclub business with his brother Ben, who clears any competitors out of the way in ruthless fashion, burying bodies in wet cement, paving the way for an upscale afterhours club called Café Society, a hangout for the rich and famous, including politicians and gangsters, where Bobby schmoozes with the customers while behind the scenes Ben handles the money.  Bobby thrives in this environment with his nervous chattiness, allowed to wallow in his misery while continually meeting new people, with Rad introducing him to a lovely New York socialite, none other than Blake Lively as Veronica (sharing his lost love’s name), a well grounded, beautiful girl who becomes his new companion, eventually marrying her and starting a family together.  What’s perhaps obvious is that no real sparks fly between Bobby and Veronica, while the same can be said for Phil and Vonnie, which is perhaps the point, suggesting they are mismatched lovers tossed a curveball by the winds of fate.  So it shouldn’t come as any surprise when Phil and Vonnie walk through the doors of the club, having traveled around the world in luxury, yet all they can talk about is themselves, becoming the picture of a prestigious upper class, suggesting people change with age, embracing all that she used to ridicule, where the couple’s emptiness and inherent phoniness is completely exposed.  When Vonnie finally has some free time, she spends it with Bobby, reigniting feelings they each felt had passed them by, taking a carriage ride through Central Park that ends with a kiss, with Allen recreating that iconic shot of the Queensboro Bridge in MANHATTAN (1979), New York Architecture Images-Queensboro Bridge, this time without the rhapsodic Gershwin musical score, where if anything, it feels deflating—right place, wrong time.  Like ships passing in the night, they each go their separate ways, only to dwell on their regrets about the one that got away in a poignant final sequence.  As she did in 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart excels throughout by underplaying her character, radiantly lit in each shot, showing a complexity of character, always leaving the audience wanting more, while others are underutilized (Lively), feel miscast (Carell), or don’t really stand out (Eisenberg), yet the concept of Ben the Jewish hit man *is* truly priceless, eventually arrested and given the electric chair, converting to Christianity at the last moment, as unlike Judaism they offer an afterlife, posing the toughest question of all for his Jewish mother, like “Sophie’s Choice,” asking which is worse, his execution or his conversion to Christianity?  While there are zany moments, with Allen hilarious in spots, where his narration especially is greatly appreciated, adding brief insights into Jewish family life, but outside of Stewart’s performance, this is yet another Allen venture that continues to be set in the upper bourgeois world of the wealthy, like a return to Great Gatsby territory, where only the down-to-earth characters ring true.   

Of special note, this is the first Woody Allen film, other than LOVE AND DEATH (1975), without co-executive producer Jack Rollins, the legendary talent agent of Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, David Letterman, and longtime manager of Allen for over 45 years, who continued to list him in his film credits even after he retired, but he passed away last year at the age of 100.   

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