Saturday, April 29, 2017

Stubs - Café Society

Café Society (2016) Starring: Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll and Ken Stott. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson. Color. USA. Runtime: 96 minutes. Comedy, Drama, Romance

Woody Allen, who started his career as a writer for Sid Caesar, has become one of the most prolific filmmakers around. Every year, it seems, he writes and directs (and occasionally now stars) in one movie a year. Working at such a steady pace and virtually alone in the creative process, it is no doubt that his films are either hit or miss. His latest, Café Society, lands somewhere in between.

A nostalgic look at an era before he was born, Café Society bears all the hallmarks of an Allen film. His persona hangs over every one of his films and in this case, we get a double-down-effect. Not only is Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman the character channeling the master filmmaker, but Allen himself provides narration, which allows the story to be told quicker, filling in the holes that the film's short run time don’t allow. Allen is nothing but an efficient storyteller as well as filmmaker.

Production on Allen’s 47th film began in Los Angeles on August 17, 2015, with the director using video rather than film for the first time. Anyone familiar with Allen’s views on Hollywood can imagine how quickly he wanted to get back to the motherland, New York, where the production moved on September 8th. In what is now a somewhat unique deal with Amazon Studios, but will no doubt become more commonplace in the future, the film was originally distributed by Lionsgate before moving to the website’s Prime video streaming service. Originally shown at the Cannes Film Festival on May 11, 2016, the film was released in theaters on July 15.

Bobby Dorfman is a young Jew (and I only mention religion since it fragrances the entire film) who wants to break free of the mundane life he sees his parents living. Like his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), Bobby doesn’t want to follow into their father Marty’s (Ken Stoll) jewelry business. Unlike Ben, Bobby is not a street tough, so he heads out West to make his fortune. His mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), tries to help by calling her brother Phil (Steve Carell), who happens to be a very successful agent in Hollywood.

Steve Carell plays Bobby's Uncle, who is a successful agent in Hollywood.

Even though he reluctantly agrees to see the boy, he puts off the meeting for several weeks. When he finally is available, Phil decides, almost as an afterthought, that he can use Bobby to run errands for him, sort of what would be a personal assistant. He introduces him to his secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), who offers to show him around town.

Veronica (Kristen Stewart) offers to show Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) around Los Angeles.

During their weekend excursions, the two talk about the hollowness of Hollywood and develop a bond. For Bobby it’s love, but Veronica, who calls herself Vonnie, wants to keep things platonic. She claims to have a reporter boyfriend that she is in love with.

Bobby wants to tell Vonnie how he feels about her, but can't.

Meanwhile, Bobby does well at work and Uncle Phil makes good by inviting him to some of his Sunday brunches. At one, he is introduced to Rad (Parker Posey) and Steve (Paul Schneider). Once a childhood movie star, Rad now runs a modeling agency in New York and Steve is an independent film producer, a bit of anachronism for the time. With Rad and his older sister Evelyn’s (Sari Lennick) 
encouragement, Bobby continues to pursue Vonnie’s affections.

At a Sunday brunch, Bobby is introduced to Rad (Parker Posey) and Steve (Paul Schneider).

Things seem to be moving forward quite nicely. Bobby gets a promotion and Vonnie offers to come over to place and make him dinner. But at the last minute, she backs out and goes to meet the other man, who turns out to be Uncle Phil. It is the clandestine couple’s first, paper anniversary, but things are not happy. Phil has waffled back and forth about leaving his wife of 25 years, Karen (Sheryl Lee) for her. He’s in love with Vonnie but can’t bring himself to end his marriage no matter how much he may say he wants to. Vonnie, who has never asked Phil for more than they already have, is heartbroken when Phil ends the relationship. And it is in Bobby’s arms that she seeks comfort.

Phil is in love with Vonnie and offers to leave his wife of 25 years for her.

Bobby doesn’t have a clue about Vonnie’s relationship with Phil when he is summoned to his Uncle’s side and hears his confession about considering leaving his wife to be with the woman he loves. And he doesn’t let on when Bobby talks about marrying Vonnie and moving back to New York with her. But Uncle Phil doesn’t try to hide things from Bobby, showcasing a letter from Rudolf Valentino that Vonnie had given him for the first (paper) anniversary when Bobby finds him in his office after finally leaving Karen.

When Bobby confronts Vonnie about whom she’ll marry, his heart is broken when she chooses Phil over him. So heartbroken, in fact, that he heads back to New York and starts to work for his brother Ben, who has opened a nightclub and is in need of a manager. The previous manager is shown dead being covered in cement, his punishment for having stolen from the club.

Ben (Corey Stoll), with one of his business associates, needs a new manager to run his nightclub.

In New York, we’re told, Bobby takes to running the club and becomes a fixture in Café Society, which is a vinegar and oil mix of intellectuals, the wealthy and the gangster fringe. One night Rad introduces him to Veronica (Blake Lively), a recently divorced woman, whose husband leaves her for a girlfriend who is better in bed. This Veronica works for the City and is fascinated by Bobby’s Jewish heritage, having never met a Jew until moving to New York.

Bobby meets Veronica (Blake Lively) at the club he manages.

Bobby is in love again and spends every minute he can with her. When she becomes pregnant, they marry. Bobby appears to have everything he’s ever wanted.

A new political regime takes power in the City and the Mayor tries to clean up the streets. Caught up in that clean sweeping broom is Ben. His thug life finally catches up with him and he is tried and convicted of many crimes, including multiple murders. One that he’s not convicted of is the one that bothers sister Evelyn. She had asked Ben to speak to their loud neighbor Joe (Brendan Burke), who has since disappeared. (Ben doesn’t know anything short of elimination when it comes to conflict resolution.) With the help of Rad and Steve, Bobby takes over ownership and the club only becomes more successful.

Vonnie and Phil come to New York and visit Bobby at his club.

Meanwhile, Phil and Vonnie come to town and go to visit Bobby at his night club. He soon discovers that Vonnie has become one of the shallow Hollywood-types that they used to make fun of. But he also finds that his love for her has not quite extinguished. Her interest is returned and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. She finally cooks him the meal that she was supposed to have years before and the two spend the night together, ending with a handsome carriage ride through Central Park at dawn.

On a subsequent trip to Los Angeles to scout possible locations for a new club there, Bobby and Vonnie continue to meet, even returning to their old haunts to reminisce.

In prison, while awaiting execution, Ben converts to Christianity, because of the religion’s promise of an afterlife. It is this conversion which mother Rose is more upset about than the crimes he committed.

The film ends on New Year's Eve with Veronica and Bobby together at his club,
 even though he's thinking about Vonnie.

The film ends on New Year’s Day. There is a party at the club which Veronica attends. As she’s getting ready for the party, she asks Bobby if he’s ever been unfaithful, to which he says an emphatic “no.” Meanwhile, Phil and Vonnie are also in New York but attending a private party. But even though they are miles apart, the film leaves no doubt that both Vonnie and Bobby are thinking of each other as the new year starts.

For the most part, the acting is really top drawer all around and it is not the performances that are lacking here. Allen is known for getting the most out of his actors, most recently directing Cate Blanchett to an Academy Award for Best Actress and a nomination for her co-star Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine (2013).

Like most recent Allen films, Café Society boasts a large cast of familiar faces. The film came close to starring Bruce Willis, who had to drop out due to other commitments. He was replaced by Steve Carell, a move that would, based on the end result, make the film better. While I’m a fan of Willis’, it seems hard to believe that he could have done a better job than Carell did in the film. Not having been a fan of Carell’s Michael Scott on the American version of The Office, he has proven to be a very good film actor, getting raves for his performances in such films as The Big Short (2015).

Jesse Eisenberg is the Woody Allen character in Cafe Society.

Eisenberg is the personification of Allen in this film, even appears to take on some of the older man’s mannerisms. Even though he’s supposed to be a young man, Bobby walks around with hunched over shoulders like one might expect more from a man in his mid-70’s, Allen’s age at the time the film was made. While Eisenberg does a good job, his character might be the least believable.

Kristen Stewart has grown into quite an actress. While she’s never looked prettier to me on screen, she also gives a very strong performance as the first Veronica Bobby falls in love with. Blake Lively, as the second Veronica, is perhaps not as strong here, but her character has much less to her than Vonnie, Stewart’s Veronica. She is much more one-dimensional.

The film revisits several themes that seem to reoccur in Allen’s films. There is always the LA versus New York debate, which Allen dealt with in more detail in Annie Hall, but his proclivity for his hometown is always bubbling under the surface. While New York was preferable back in the 1970s, it was apparently still true back in the 1930s as well.

Bobby is not the first Allen protagonist with a criminally inclined sibling. Most notably was Jack Rosenthal (Jerry Orbach), the brother of Judah (Martin Landau), who helps his sibling out of a jam by hiring a hitman to kill Judah’s mistress, Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston) in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Ben (Corey Stoll) is much more visceral than Jack had been, but with the exception of one scene, most of his story is told through narration. Stoll is okay in the role, but he is capable of more. Better to leave them wanting more, I guess.

Ben’s conversion to Christianity is also a theme that Allen has touched on before. When Allen’s Mickey in Hannah and Her Sisters searches for the meaning of life, he briefly considers Christianity, but cannot stomach the Mayonnaise that comes with it. In Café Society with Ben on Death Row, he converts looking for salvation and forgiveness of his soul.

Allen never delves too deeply into any of these subjects, more giving them lip service than any real examination. But developing these themes is not what the film is about, rather it is that they all play a part in our lives.

A gifted writer, Allen seems to take a somewhat lazy way out here. The narration, which makes Allen a part of the story as a God-like presence rather than a participant, also allows for him to tell rather than show things. We learn a lot about how people feel not from their mouths but from his. The narration allows him to take short cuts with progressing the story.

Some of the dialogue is a little bit of a stretch. I’m not sure many lovers meeting covertly talk like Phil and Vonnie do, or that many women would really be wooed by some of what comes out of Bobby’s mouth, either. Only in Allen’s films do gorgeous women, like Blake Lively’s Veronica, fall for neurotic tweebs like Bobby.

One sequence that seemed to go nowhere is when Bobby, having been alone in Hollywood for nearly a month, finally gives in and calls for a hooker. What we take it is his first time to pay for sex, is also hers as well. Candy (Anna Camp) is not only a newbie in the world’s oldest profession, but she is also Jewish to boot. Her inexperience and religious background really play a number on Bobby, who can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to have sex with her or not. He finally ends up sending her on her way without making her go through with her assignment. For someone whom we learn so much about, when Candy goes out the door, she is also out of the movie. 

Woody Allen directing Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in Cafe Society.

As a director, Allen is still capable of delivering the humor when he decides, even making some of the violence laughable through juxtaposition. Allen no longer has to rely solely on his writing to carry him or to cover up for other shortcomings. As a filmmaker, Allen has reached a certain level that few directors ever do. He is allowed to make films as often as he wants, which is roughly one a year. While his lack of box office success has even driven him overseas in search of financing, his stature has been such that he has always been able to find distribution.

The film does a good job of recreating 1930s Hollywood.

Café Society looks gorgeous and not only when Lively and Stewart are onscreen. Thanks to the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto, the 30’s are captured with a sort of spot-on nostalgia. Details are delivered with a muted wistfulness.

While not the best of Allen’s films, Café Society is still very good. It is nice to see an adult film released during the summer that has nary a special effect or touch of vulgar humor. There is a lot that more hip filmmakers, directors, and writers could still learn from him. There may be issues, but a Woody Allen film is always worth seeing. The fact that this one is as good as it is, is a bonus.

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