Two stars. Rated PG-13, for suggestive content, occasional violence and a fleeting drug reference
By Derrick Bang
Once or twice each year, I come across a film whose mere existence is baffling.
They’re not bad, at least not overtly; they’re simply bewildering. We endure them for somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, and then the lights come up, and we frown at each other with the same unspoken question: Is that it? Seriously?
|It's love at first sight, at least for Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), when Vonnie (Kristen Stewart)|
agrees to show him all the wonders of Hollywood's film colony. Alas, the course of true
love never is steady in a Woody Allen film.
And why, precisely? What was the point?
Woody Allen’s newest is just such a film.
The package is attractively wrapped: Production designer Santo Loquasto transports us back to 1930s New York and Hollywood with an opulent level of verisimilitude. The actors are luxuriously garbed by costume designer Suzy Benzinger, every member of the large ensemble cast well selected for each part.
Allen supplies narration throughout the film, often with the same passionate, poetic devotion that he displayed for the Big Apple in 1979’s Manhattan. The various characters seem reasonably interesting, the story’s unusual romantic triangle an intriguing hook on which to hang what we expect will be an homage to Golden Age cinematic classics.
Doesn’t work out that way.
Café Society is a textbook case of a movie being all dressed up, with nowhere to go. I’ve no idea what Allen intended us to gather from his bizarrely random script, unless it’s the oft-stated cliché that people are remarkably adept at screwing up their own lives. But even that doesn’t seem quite right, because several of these characters do get their heart’s desire.
With an oeuvre as lengthy and varied as Allen’s, we tend to categorize each new film on the basis of its many predecessors; this one feels like a clumsy blend of Crime and Misdemeanors and Radio Days, if the latter’s young protagonist were half a generation older. That’s a rather unholy mash-up, to say the least, and Allen doesn’t do anything remotely interesting with it.
Café Society also is burdened with far too many sidebar characters, many of whom don’t get the attention they deserve. Their various side issues don’t integrate well with the core narrative, leaving us to wonder why they were included in the first place.
The storyline, more or less:
Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), not satisfied with joining his father’s jewelry business, decamps for the much more exciting life he imagines awaits on the opposite coast, in Hollywood. Bobby has an entry of sorts: his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent who drops famous names, like adjectives, into every spoken sentence.
At first blush, Phil seems a superficial, puffed-up phony who merely talks a great show, but no; turns out he really does know and represent everybody from Errol Flynn to Judy Garland. Even so, he’s too self-obsessed to waste much time with a nephew, and so hires Bobby as a glorified gopher and assigns his secretary/assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to look after the kid.
Vonnie embraces that task willingly, and perhaps with too much enthusiasm; Bobby quickly falls head over heels in love. And who wouldn’t? Stewart makes Vonnie radiant in an unaffected, Nebraska-born, girl-next-door manner, her enchanting smile and sparkling eyes displaying a guileless sincerity that Bobby quickly distinguishes from all the other egomaniacal pretenders hovering in Uncle Phil’s orbit.
Ah, but bad luck, old sport; Vonnie is forced to admit that she already has a boyfriend. Even so, she’s obviously charmed by Bobby’s heartfelt attention ... and what girl wouldn’t be?
Then, the Big Reveal: Vonnie actually is Uncle Phil’s mistress, a detail she is careful not to share with Bobby. She and Phil have been together for a year, during which he has strung her along with repeated promises to leave his wife.
Bobby buries his disappointment by doing his best to interact with the movers and shakers who attend Phil’s frequent parties, striking gold with one couple: New York model agency owner Rad (Parker Posey) and her husband Steve (Paul Schneider), a wealthy producer. They take an interest in Bobby, and we sense that this “interest” may prove useful.
Meanwhile, Allen periodically shuttles us back to New York, mostly to profile Bobby’s older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), an unapologetic gangster who has clawed his way to nightclub ownership by bumping off everybody who stood in his way. These mob-style slayings are played for cheap laughs ... until suddenly they aren’t, during one of Allen’s many abrupt tonal shifts.
We also meet Bobby and Ben’s sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick), a sensitive and intelligent woman married to the overly intellectual, Commie-sympathizing Leonard (Stephen Kunken). Their actual purpose in these events remains vague, until the repeated incivilities of a loutish next-door neighbor prompt Evelyn to ask Ben if he could “do something” about the jerk in question.
Along the way, we also spend plenty of time with the Dorfman parents: the uncomplicated, pragmatic Marty (Ken Stott); and the forever fussing, relentlessly bickering Rose (Jeannie Berlin). The entire family is proudly Jewish — well, not so much with Marty — and Rose is a nagging, controlling and smothering nudnik to the core, prone to an endless stream of Yiddish aphorisms. Berlin’s crunched-gravel voice makes such pronouncements even funnier than they are to begin with.
Events ... develop.
Circumstances bring everybody back to New York, not necessarily simultaneously; we also wind up back in Hollywood, if only briefly. As the sun finally sets on this odd little morality play, some people are unhappily restless; others are living the dream; others are disillusioned; others go on the way they have been, unchanged; and one, in particular, meets a fate that is wholly out of context with the rest of the film. Eyebrow-lifting, to say the least.
Over time, Allen has cast various younger actors as his kvetching surrogates; John Cusack, Jason Biggs and Owen Wilson immediately come to mind. Eisenberg is by far the best, and most natural; his signature tics already include the twitchy anxiety and motor-mouthed intensity that characterize Allen’s nervous, New York intellectualism. Obviously, such traits are off-putting on their own; Eisenberg makes them palatable by imbuing Bobby with a an earnest, unsophisticated sweetness that makes him a genuinely endearing romantic lead.
Until he isn’t. I’m not sure what to make of Bobby’s third-act character arc, except for the fact that one can’t swim in a new pond, without eventually smelling like the fish contained therein.
Carell’s Uncle Phil is a more difficult study, in the opposite direction. We initially loathe his pretentious, insulated manner: a haughty Hollywood aristocrat obsessed with his own legend-in-the-making. Our scorn grows even stronger when Phil’s infidelity is revealed, particularly insofar as it affects Vonnie. But as matters progress, Carell works hard to make us sympathize with this guy, who apparently desires (needs?) some level of happiness removed from his shark-infested environment.
I couldn’t buy it. Carell gets top marks for trying hard, but Phil’s self-aggrandizing bluster is too much to forgive.
It’s even harder to swallow Vonnie’s sudden transformation, late in these proceedings. Betrayal doesn’t seem a strong enough term; contrived capitulation is closer to the mark. Considering the natural chemistry that Stewart and Eisenberg share — this is their third film together, after Adventureland and American Ultra — Allen’s manipulative handling of this story’s Bobby/Vonnie dynamic just feels wrong.
And what, pray tell, are we to make of Bobby’s early encounter with a first-time Hollywood prostitute (Anna Camp) who’s just as unprepared as he, for their financial transaction? The entire scene is awkward, mannered, utterly unbelievable and not the slightest bit amusing, although clearly intended for laughs.
Allen’s career has risen from the ashes far more often than most, as recent hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine attest. But every incandescent revival is followed by self-indulgent clunkers, into which category Café Society definitely falls.
Assuming it makes enough sense even to be regarded as a clunker. The jury’s still out on that one.