Shelley A. Sackett
Like the West Bank settlements, 2016 presidential politics or the temperature of the main sanctuary during High Holiday services, Woody Allen is a lightning rod topic guaranteed to incite impassioned debate.
His 47th film, “Café Society”, was released less than a month ago and has been called everything from “a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie” to “the most beguiling in his ongoing late work.” It’s not his best, but he’s certainly made worse.
The film opens with a breathtaking shot of a romanticized version of 1930’s Hollywood, surprising coming from Allen, known more for his antipathy than amity towards Los Angeles. Sophisticated guests in formal evening wear mill about an impossibly blue pool where their host, the mega-agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) holds court. He is expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he announces loudly. Instead, he gets the family matriarch in the Bronx. His older sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) announces the imminent arrival of her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who is heading West to seek his fame and fortune. Phil should “set him up”.
Phil manages to avoid his nephew for three weeks, and then gives him “some cockamamie title” and a glorified errand-boy job. He also gives him his secretary, the Nebraska transplant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, whose luminous performance lends the film its only breath of fresh air), to show Bobby around his new hood. With her midriff-baring ensembles, ankle socks and little girl headbands, she is the quintessential Allen “it” girl/woman (think Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow and Scarlet Johansson).
Predictably, Bobby falls hard for her as they bond over Malibu beaches, grand old movie palaces and cheap, authentic Mexican food. Suddenly Bobby isn’t so homesick.
But just when he thinks he’s hit it big, it turns out he’s mined fool’s gold. (WARNING: Spoiler alert!) Vonnie has a much older, very married boyfriend who, in a plot twist all the more creepy in the context of Allen’s real life marriage to his quasi-adopted stepdaughter, is none other than Bobby’s Uncle Phil. Phil ups the ante and finally leaves his wife, asking Vonnie to marry him after Bobby confides he has just proposed to her. Vonnie chooses the Hollywood wife life, and Bobby heads back to New York broken-hearted.
Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (a credible Corey Stoll) sets him up with a nightclub, and before long Bobby and his “Café Society” are thriving. His sophisticated clientele are the same swanky swells we met in the opening scene — they’ve just swapped their California sunglasses for sequins. It turns out Bobby was in his element in Hollywood after all; he was simply displaced on the wrong coast.
While Bobby and Vonnie get on with their lives (he marries another Veronica, Blake Lively, in an under-scripted part), they never get over each other, and their unrequited love is the theme of the last third of the movie. This would make for a gloomy half-hour were it not for some terrific one-liners and stand-out, effortless supporting performances, especially by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, as Bobby’s squabbling parents Rose and Marty, and Sari Lennick, as his older sister Evelyn.
Unfortunately, Jesse Eisenberg is miscast as the Allen archetype of neurotic, articulate, self-absorbed and self-identifying New York Jew. There is a disconnect between the message and the messenger as Eisenberg giggles, hiccups and lurches his way through the film, his flat affect and bland hunch-shouldered physicality becoming distracting annoyances by the film’s end.
There are the usual cringe lines (Bobby’s response, “It’s part of our charm” to an unambiguous, “It’s true what they say. You people are pushy.”) and scenes (notably the gratuitous and unfunny prostitute encounter) we are braced to expect. But Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography is bewitching. He brings a pallet of sepias, golds and organic shadows to his first collaboration with Allen. His artistry and Stewart’s portrayal of Vonnie are reasons enough to see the film.
It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen is an 80-year-old man, but believe it we must as we listen to his brittle, fragile voiceover narration. Love him, hate him, tolerate him, whatever. There’s no denying the guy’s a cinematic wunderkind and our very own boychik to boot.