Monday, August 8, 2016

Woody Allen | Café Society

bathed in gold
by Douglas Messerli

Woody Allen (writer and director) Café Society / 2016

What to think of Woody Allen’s newest beautifully imaged (by noted cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, of The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris) but quite empty-minded comedy-drama, Café Society? One is tempted, of course, just to ignore it, which I almost did, refusing to attend it until weeks after its release.

But that would be too simple, and besides Allen himself seems to have almost ignored his own film by awarding it with a flimsy plot that goes nowhere—except to twitter back and forth between his always warring cities of Los Angeles and New York—and totally forgetting what moral ground, if any, he might have wished to lay out. 
     This film is about getting what you deserve of the American dream—as in so many of Allen’s films, the right companion (in his male-dominated world, usually women), success, and fame—without having to feel too much guilt about just those desires. But, of course, that’s impossible from Allen’s self-infatuated, neurotic perspective. If you get what you want, you have the right obsess over it and feel the proper guilt so that you might truly never get “over it” and move on. In movie after movie, Allen’s guilty heroes contemplate their involvement in selfish acquisition, inappropriate sexual behavior, and even murder—so insistently, in fact, that one has to wonder (even beyond his possible assault on his 7-year-old daughter Dylan Farrow and his affair with and marriage to his daughter through marriage, Soon-Yi Previn), what he might actually have gotten away with. 
    If Crimes and Misdemeanors is, at least, a film grounded in moral questions, the newest film merely hints at them, and asks hardly any questions at all. Why, for example—other than the fact that he no longer likes working in his father’s jewelry business—has the wide-eyed Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) even come to Los Angeles? Presumably, he plans to take advantage of his uncle Phil’s (Steve Carrell) position as a major agent of motion picture stars. Uncle Phil puts him off for a couple of weeks, despite a call from Bobby’s manic Jewish stereotype of a mother (the quite humorous Jeannie Berlin), and then attempts to spin him off into the mail room—“if anything should ever become available”—only, at the last moment, to give into family ties (despite Bobby’s father’s claim that Phil, who has converted to Hollywood values, is no longer Jewish—which presumably is Allen’s sentiment about all the thousands of Jewish Hollywood producers and workers who had left his sacred haven of New York), using him, first as an errand boy before allowing him to “read scripts”—perhaps the most arduous and unrewarding job in all of Hollywood. After all, as many a Hollywood producer proclaimed, writers are unnecessary hacks! So, as Marlon Brando might have answered “ha, ha!”
     Uncle Phil, in perhaps a smidgen of sympathy, also assigns Bobby his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to tour him around as well as inviting his “deer in the headlights” nephew to several Hollywood brunches and dinner-parties where he might meet the powerful and rich. Allen presents these as totally meaningless and absolutely boring affairs, despite all the Hollywood name-dropping that goes on in them (and I can tell you, from personal experience, they truly are). But nonetheless, Bobby does meet a friendly New York-based couple at one affair who promise, if he returns to New York, to introduce him to beautiful and available young women—which, it becomes clearer and clearer, is what Bobby is truly seeking.
     Vonnie takes out our young lothario, touring him around as if she were a personal “tour-of-the-stars” driver to see the homes of the great figures, including the homes of Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, and others, all of which—reminding one of Allen’s own outsider status—they view from the gates. No wonder the young woman from Nebraska and the boy from Brooklyn can’t find much pleasure in the vastly wealthy Beverly Hills estates. They remain outsiders, and they soon find solace in one another’s outsiderness—the position Allen has taken in every single one of his movies. 
     Yet Vonnie keeps the romantic Bobby (a clear imitation of a young Woody Allen) at arm’s length, hinting that she has a boyfriend, Doug, with whom she’s romantically involved. Allen, however, forces Bobby to move forward—simply because, as his hero, Bobby deserves the beautiful woman—planning a dinner evening when he will surely pounce. But that same evening, it turns out, Vonnie has an important date with her lover—who turns out to be none other than Bobby’s Uncle Phil, who, announcing that he is ready to leave his wife, gets cold feet and cancels their affair. When Vonnie arrives in tears, like a wet dog, at Bobby’s doorstep you can almost hear this now clearly selfish young man is cheering about the failure of her relationship. He might now marry her, return to a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village and live out his life with his trophy wife—even if he has absolutely nothing to offer her; in Allen’s world, always, the nebbish fool wins out, simply because he is more serious, more introspective, more neurotic, and self-consumed. Women who might seek out a relationship in order to simply “survive”—to put in in Donald Trump’s terms, are “losers.” After all, the male Woody Allen characters often survive and are even rewarded—despite their nefarious activities, while the women (think of Jasmine Francis in Blue Jasmine and the Anjelica Houston figure in Cries and Misdemeanors) are horribly punished.
     Vonnie, when it is finally revealed that her secret lover is Bobby’s own uncle, choses the easier route to happiness, allowing her entry into a world which she had never before imagined. But in Allen’s vision, she is now a throwaway, a “nobody” who has abandoned all of her values.
      Never mind that, in returning to New York, Bobby also abandons any moral compass, working as the head of a nightclub owned by his Mafia-member brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Little Bobby quickly gets savvy, knows every important person in the New York political and social scene, and grows rich. His earlier temporary LA friends invite all their friends, and everyone is perfectly happy—in a way in which Allen seems unable to see with any irony. After all, the café society in which Bobby is now
encased within the beautiful artificially lit glow of New York skyscrapers, is definitely to be preferred, in Allen's thinking, to the golden glow of the California sun—both perfectly re-created in 1930s detail by production designer Santo Loquasto.

      If his family seems unable to even perceive the terrifying activities of the elder sibling, the police try to, at least, warn Bobby, who—if he recognizes the “dog-eat-dog” world of Hollywood life, cannot comprehend the murder and mayhem his gangster brother encompasses. Even Bobby’s sister, whose Marxist, peace-loving husband cannot effectively confront their violent next-door neighbor, calls in her brother Ben to give him warning of their neighborly complaints—which results, as is Ben’s usual calling card, with a burial in cement. And when her husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), the only socially responsible figure in this film, discovers her actions, the others refuse to deal with their guilt of their neighbor’s sudden disappearance. Ben is tried and publically executed for his murderous activities (although he evidently gets away with this one murder). Such horrific deeds are tossed off by Allen with a kind of endnote joke, as the Jewish Ben converts to Christianity so that he may have an afterlife. Even if the family is not explicitly involved, it appears that only Leonard can perceive that they truly have been complicit, and are therefore guilty.
       Now grown-up Bobby seems perfectly at home in his new work, having married another beautiful Veronica (Blake Lively) and already produced a baby, another on its way. Yet when he encounters his original Vonnie at his now famous nightclub, he is utterly outraged by her new persona—a woman suddenly seemingly at home in the Hollywood world she had once dismissed and he has abandoned. 
       But gradually, he becomes once again attracted to her and, now playing a role that is not so very different than his Uncle Phil, meets with her over a few days, resulting, at the very least, in a reaffirmation of their earlier love in a few stolen kisses. If he does not, literally, cheat on his wife (the movie shows no evidence of them actually engaging in any sexual act), he does most assertively lie to his beautiful wife, just as Phil had done to his wife, Karen (Sheryl Lee).
       As the New Year arrives, both Bobby and Vonnie are seen, at separate New York events, to be dreamily thinking of one another, conjuring up, perhaps, just such a golden and truly nostalgic world that Allen has achieved in creating this and so many others of his later films. Yes, as Allen argues, love is often a “mess,” a confusing series of events that one regrets and yet must accept. But the entitlement he again and again permits his characters is something else. Perhaps there comes a time when you simply must cut off the past and move on into a more morally responsible future. In his old age, Woody Allen seems quite incapable of that, as he desperately tries to relive a past he perhaps should never have embraced in the first place. And if there are such dark secrets, perhaps it is time to speak openly of them, instead of silently hovering over them in what he defines as his art.

Los Angeles, August 7, 2016

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