Woody Allen’s Café Society opened in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas 6, a tiny movie house off of 62nd and Broadway which dedicated just one screen and two show-times to the film on its first night. A week later, it’s getting three screens at once in order to accommodate ticket sales that, while snowballing, yes, seem to still be coming from the pockets of an older crowd. There are married couples, mostly, old friends, and five or six young people in a room at capacity. The laughs, from what I could tell, come strictly from the first two. Oh, the last smiles, sure, if so goaded by the others, but does not quite share the first group’s humor. One knows what to expect. The other, likely having heard of Woody’s brilliance, once, sees a disconnect between this information and what is now on screen. One group’s smiling, holding hands, as if on the same date they were on forty years ago…and perhaps in fact are. The other, however, has no past here; has, to be sure, only Now, and thus cannot personalize Woody; cannot judge this film on the strength of masterpieces gone. One shakes its head – rightly! – at the ignorance of the first. But the other- ah, but the other can’t quite believe how much the past discolors the future, even as they, themselves, will eventually do the same, and denounce those too distant, too late to share their own peculiar bias.
To be fair, Café Society is a solid work, with some good moments and overarching artistic decisions. Yet it suffers, overwhelmingly, from what most of Woody’s films have suffered in the last two decades: massive self-borrowings that, instead of offering some new angle, tone, or shading of an old idea, merely repeat the thing with slight cosmetic differences. There are many – too many – examples of this, but perhaps a mere sampling is enough. The film opens with Woody narrating in trite terms, a la Manhattan, what the city – in this case, Hollywood – is ‘really’ like. But while Manhattan used these clichés subversively, developing Isaac’s character in a way that exposed his superficiality, Café Society’s narration is to be taken at face value, even when (as with the lesser portions of Vicky Cristina Barcelona) it is needlessly recapitulative. Other borrowings include the archetype of Bobby’s (Jesse Eisenberg) thug brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a dilution of Crimes And Misdemeanors and the lighter portions of Bullets Over Broadway. Another is with one of the film’s primary arcs, wherein Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) transforms into a person she’s always hated, a twist that’s right out of Celebrity, despite lacking Celebrity’s deeper comments re: happiness and wisdom, and how different the two really are. Yes, viewers might fill in the blanks, as they’re used to these concepts, but isn’t that a flaw: that an artist’s moves, techniques, and the like are so predictable, that he doesn’t even need to do the hard work of inclusion? Later, the film’s ending mixes the last few moments of Radio Days with – of all things! – the final shot of Stardust Memories, which, while more successful than these other borrowings, still uses the past as a kind of crutch, just as the film’s audience assumes the past’s the present, and somehow requires less work and follow-through.
Now, these are serious issues, all, but meaningless without some extrapolation. So let us do a scene-by-scene replay and observe whatever needs a critical eye. Woody Allen’s Café Society opens with talent agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) at his home, in the midst of an upper class party that includes famous actors, movie producers, friends, and investors. Little is said or done that hammers their ‘type,’ as the scene’s more of a prop than exposition. In this way, Woody loses both time and density with a film that’s already quite lean at 90 minutes: meaning, the less that’s done, the less he’ll be able to do as the thing progresses. Carell, who is used to playing goofballs, does so here – an odd choice, really, since while Carell is a fantastic comedic actor, this role requires an occasional gravitas that he can’t simply flip on, thus turning potentially serious moments into light-hearted ones, with mixed results. Phil, who seems to genuinely enjoy the carousing, is interrupted by a phone call from his sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin), the lower middle class wife of Marty (Ken Stott), whose son, Bobby, wishes to make it big in Hollywood. Phil agrees to take his nephew on, but, upon arrival, ignores Bobby for a week due to ‘business.’ Yet this is one of those mixed results that yields success, since the fact that Carell can never quite be serious is oddly suitable for scenes like these, thus defining himself as the unscrupulous air-head he’s eventually shown to be. Lonely, Bobby calls up a prostitute, Candy (Anna Camp), in an amusing scene where, unable to decide whether the two wish to sleep with each other, Bobby ultimately rejects her for being Jewish. But while Woody is content to let the scene play out for its own sake, and perhaps a chuckle or two, Woody’s earlier years would have demanded an arc for even the most minor of characters. Today, however, she is simply left there, with neither purpose nor recompense.
In time, Bobby does get to meet Phil and starts working for him alongside Phil’s secretary and mistress, who also becomes Bobby’s love interest. Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) immediately takes a liking to Bobby, whereas Bobby falls in love, and starts to fixate on her partly due to her own mixed signals. Phil, meanwhile, promises to leave his wife for a relationship with Vonnie, while Bobby’s brother, Ben, opens up a nightclub back in New York. In time, however, the predictable happens, and Phil decides to stay with his wife, thus cutting a heartbroken Vonnie loose to pursue a relationship with Bobby. They do, and not only fall in love, but ‘move up’ in the world, as well, as Bobby’s acquiring more and more responsibilities while Vonnie tries to keep him humble, as she’s never been impressed with high society and all such worlds entail. In between all this, we get a few glimpses of the Dorfmans’ home life, from Woody’s now-classic Jewish bickering, to Ben’s almost comical violence, to Bobby’s sister’s (Sari Lennick) relationship with her husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), a clueless Marxist intellectual – Bullets; Radio Days – who ignores the threat from their unstable neighbor and inadvertently gets Ben involved in murder. These side-plots, however, are meaningless on the whole, since their only real function is 1) setting, and 2) a means to propel the plot after Bobby’s Hollywood dream is over. That they are explored at length is not a problem in and of itself. The issue is, barring the functions, above, there simply isn’t enough in the jokes and characters, themselves, to justify their length…even if their inclusion is simply a trope, at this point, and a way for Woody to check off some boxes.
Months later, Bobby is fed up with Hollywood, and, having changed into a confident young man with new contacts and skills, proposes to Vonnie, and suggests they move to Manhattan to live humbly among ‘real’ artists. This creates a dilemma, however, since Phil changes his mind about Vonnie once more. So, he confides in Bobby about being in love with another woman, either unaware of his nephew’s relationship with his former mistress, or not caring. After Bobby encourages Phil to pursue his desires, he informs Phil that he and Vonnie are about to get married to move back to New York. Phil is shocked into action, and confronts Vonnie with a confession of love that ends in a memorable line that highlights, in a comic way, his smarmy nature and indecisiveness. And while Steve Carell is a good, comedic answer to Woody’s own lack of presence in his own film, Kristen Stewart, who is two or three notches below Carrel, still fills a similar role in ways recent ‘Woody Women’ could not. No, she lacks the dramatic strength of his classic actresses, but emotes well with her face, hands, and body language: things that no script can ever really include, and few actors ever remember to. For instance, the first scene with Bobby after Phil’s confession has Vonnie half-speaking, looking away, casting illegible expressions, but still lovingly so, to the point that she appears genuinely conflicted as opposed to already having made up her mind. Yes, I knew what she’d ultimately decide, for many reasons, but had the film’s structure been any different, the viewer would not be so sure of her actions, and even rail against the possibility despite knowing better, for what she doesn’t say (alongside Woody’s visual focus) is even more important than the words themselves. Yet while Stewart’s strengths seem to lie more in hybrid genres, like these, there is of course less glory in such, less desire, even as a ‘pure’ drama might highlight the wrong portions of her talent, and snooze-fests like Twilight exacerbate some of her worst tendencies.
Soon, Vonnie relents and agrees to marry Phil, as Bobby goes back home and enters the nightclub business with his brother, who is eventually executed for his crimes. Far from damaging him, however, the experience seems to steel Bobby into becoming a success, as he not only acquires wealth but also a small kind of celebrity. One gets the sense that this was ‘in’ Bobby all along, at once justifying the original, hard-to-believe attraction between the two, and even subverting some of the earlier scenes, as well. In time, Bobby meets and marries a woman that shares his ex-fiance’s name, Veronica (Blake Lively), with whom he has a child as she subtly becomes a housewife, and not the source of excitement Bobby now apparently seeks. This is another nice, realistic touch, as Bobby, once in search of glamour, finally gets it, and grows bored while everyone else around him grows up. This is soon complicated by the appearance of the now-married Vonnie at Bobby’s club, who, in the film’s last twenty minutes, rekindles a romance that seems best forgotten. Interestingly, we never see the two carry out a full-blown affair, merely an emotional one with a long kiss, thus forcing the viewer to make some decisions about what ‘really’ happens. These few minutes are handled well, save for when Bobby, feeling guilty over the kiss (and perhaps more), surprises his wife with flowers: a scene that’s needlessly drawn out, whereas a younger Woody might have zipped through it, and let the image and its possible meaning fester in the viewer’s mind. Nor do Bobby and Vonnie say anything of real worth to each other during their encounters. Little is revealed, on a deeper level, of their inner reasons, merely that they’re there, and while this suffices, in a way, since the viewer’s left wondering of things he’s seen, there is precious little to remember of them once that thought stops.
As the film draws to a close, the two decide to put an end to the affair completely. This is potentially signaled when Veronica asks Bobby whether he had ever been unfaithful, an idea that’s brought on by a dream she once had. Bobby says No after some hesitation, and reminds Veronica that it was merely “a dream,” a moment that’s pillaged from Hannah And Her Sisters, where Elliot’s affair – as important as it was, for a while – is described in similar terms, until the thing’s forgotten. Later, a New Year’s Eve party has both Vonnie and Bobby break away from their spouses, not quite meeting each other, but curiously looking away in thought, as the scene fades and only a handful of lights remain as in Stardust Memory’s ‘outer’ film. Bobby’s life, as per Hannah, seems to go on as it’s always meant to go, while Vonnie likely goes back to Hollywood, further ossifying herself into things and patterns she doesn’t really want. In a way, then, it is hard to say who is worse off: Vonnie, for the reasons above, or Bobby, who doesn’t compromise his beliefs, like Vonnie does, but compromises others by craving the very things he knows he ought to have grown out of, but cannot. Thus, he gets what he’s always wanted: wealth, celebrity, love, but, in having fewer pressures on him, like, say, Phil, who is surrounded by hangers-on and leeches, now seems to have the freedom to dream and mope and act like a child, even as his emotions are genuine, primeval, and genuinely selfish.
It is easier, then, to speak at length about Woody Allen’s Café Society than his last 3 or 4 films. Yet Café’s numerous flaws, from the non-cinematography, to character stereotypes, to the often stale writing, keep it as a fairly average work in the same category as the others. That said, it is also far too easy to read the past into these stories; it’s too easy to see depths, and motives, and ideas that are merely implied, simply because one crowd – an older crowd – knows what’s happened once before, and are willing to extrapolate this into the future. The issue, of course, is that history does not always repeat itself in the micro, while less convenient cycles – such as artists’ seemingly inevitable decline and obsolescence – are ignored. It is precisely in these cases that inexperience pays off, where wisdom’s little more than seeing each instance of the world as its own block and turmoil. No, one cannot apply this to all things. The converse, however, is just as wrong, and something that, could Woody Allen see, he’d more than see, but use, re-use, apply, in order to create whatever’s left in him, then abscond with whatever that remains.