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Café Society

July 22, 2016
Café Society

Woody Allen’s only solidly good movie this decade was Magic in the Moonlight, which worked in large part because he has a clear love of the setting. It’s been clear for ages that he’d prefer to be rich in the south of France in the 1930s than, say, on the downmarket side of contemporary San Francisco. Jazz Age Hollywood seems to be another era he nurses a certain fondness for, which bodes well for Café Society. But don’t get your hopes up.

Allen’s early, acclaimed work carved out his recurring nebbishy character. Over the years it’s become apparent that he doesn’t really know how to write any other kind. Even when he’s not in the lead, he tries making some bigger-name star do a Woody Allen impression. When it comes to actors with recognizable approaches of their own — like Owen Wilson and Colin Firth — the difference from their normal style is slight. But in the case of 2003’s Anything Else, Jason Biggs didn’t have much experience beyond American Pie movies, and he delivered more of a caricature than a character.

Jesse Eisenberg is a talented actor, but his performance as Bobby Dorfman lands closer to Biggs than Firth. Bobby comes out to Los Angeles to get a change from New York, and Eisenberg delivers his mannerisms and accent as if he’s spent the last six months watching nothing but Annie Hall. He finds himself in a Hollywood that always seems to be lit in the golden hour, as often as not by a filter over the camera. He takes a job as an errand buy for his powerhouse agent uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), who asks his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town.

Bobby naturally falls for her right off the bat. She’d love him too, but she’s seeing someone. Thus sets up the first love triangle, which resolves when Vonnie finally chooses her other beau. Bobby was getting tired of Hollywood anyway, so he moves back to New York and goes into the nightclub business with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). A stammering, self-conscious sort like Bobby isn’t who I’d expect to become the suave owner of the hippest club in 1930s New York City, but nothing’s too good for a Woody Allen lead.

That goes for the women in his life, too. Bobby meets Veronica (Blake Lively) at his club, and they quickly marry and have a kid. But then Vonnie shows up again, setting up the second love triangle. It’s always amazing how the most beautiful women in the world can’t help but throw themselves at one of Allen’s self-insert characters, almost as if someone were writing their attraction into the script.

But Allen’s honest love for old Hollywood does show, even when it doesn’t seem like he understands it. He lifts a bit of technique when he renders his lovers’ trysts in soft-focus close-up shots and reverse-shots that would look wonderful in the black-and-white film stock of the ’30s. Except he doesn’t shoot them in black-and-white, but in oversaturated, oddly-filtered color, and the results are more garish than gorgeous; one has to imagine that cinematographer Vittorio Storaro shot this footage under protest. His language also has little to do with the patter that we’re all so familiar with from Turner Classic Movies, and everything to do with the same self-conscious Allen-speak he always writes in.

Eisenberg and Stewart suffer the most from this script. Two of the most naturalistic young actors going, and they’re delivering their lines like ill-fitting suits. They quote their words like underrehearsed high-schoolers who don’t really understand the characters they’re playing. There is chemistry between the two of them — as we saw in American Ultra — but it only seems to come out in those rare moments when Allen lets them shut up.

So many odd choices add up to reinforce the sense of Woody Allen as well past his prime, coasting out his long decline with one vanity project after another. He was certainly a great talent at one point, but he’s been running on fumes and ego for years, having never learned how to tell a story that’s not ultimately all about himself.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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