Wednesday, August 10, 2016

CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

Written & Directed by Woody Allen


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. July 16, 2016  3:15 PM



"Café Society", the latest feature by Woody Allen, takes a wistful look back at romantic longing, deceptive behavior and missed opportunities in a story set in the glamorous world of 1930's Hollywood. It's no secret that the eighty year old director has a great affection for the past as he has covered the era of his adolescence numerous times throughout the years. Even when he takes on a contemporary setting, the tone still feels deeply rooted in days gone by. With this film, Allen knows how to expertly tell a story, filled with dramatic tension and bleak comedy yet he's unable to craft it in a way that seems unfamiliar or atypical.

Another one of Allen's favorite themes is New York versus Los Angeles and that occurs again here with Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man leaving behind his secure employment with the family jewelry business to take a chance on a new life in the city of continuous sunshine. His concerned mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin) calls her brother, Phil (Steve Carell), who is a top Hollywood talent agent, to help her son out with a job.

Without anything to offer at the moment, Phil has his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) keep him company and show Bobby around the city in the meantime. The two spend a lot of time together with Bobby becoming completely smitten with the lovely girl, admiring her lack of pretense and earnest ambition. And while she's attracted to him too, she's already in a committed relationship with a roving journalist who travels across the globe for work. When Vonnie's relationship suddenly comes to an unexpected end, a pleased Bobby offers his shoulder for the devastated young woman to cry on.

Even though his relationship with Phil has grown close, attending family functions and parties filled with Hollywood types, Bobby is still surprised when his uncle confides that he's been having a long-time affair and ready to leave his wife for this other woman. This bit of shocking news will create an unforeseen problem for Bobby, ultimately leaving him crushed and disappointed.

Bobby soon heads back to the east coast, with nothing more than unpleasant memories of his time in Los Angeles. He decides to join a new family business; running a nightclub with his brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a mobster whose solution to any problem, big or small, is to bury it six feet under. The club becomes a popular destination for the rich and powerful which in turn makes Bobby one of them. One night, he meets Veronica (Blake Lively), a gorgeous divorcee, eventually marrying her and starting a family. Just when his life seemed to be going in a comfortable direction, the complicated past comes rushing back and takes a seat in his nightclub.

It's been said that writers write about what they know and that has paid off handsomely for Mr. Allen. He's managed to make comic gold and some cinematic gems throughout the years from his life experiences including his explorations in to less traveled themes like May/December romance, existential crisis and psychoanalysis. However, after all this time, it's gotten pretty stale and predictable. The movies seem stuck in the past, literally and figuratively, continuously filled with his beloved jazz and not too many surprises. That's not to say the films aren't still occasionally engaging, funny or charming but fresh is not a word that would be used to describe any recent Woody Allen film. One notable change from our film making Luddite is that this was the first time Allen shot digitally with Vittorio Storaro, the Oscar-winning cinematographer for "Apocalypse Now" and "Reds" and "The Last Emperor", handling the duties.

While our two leads have worked together before, allowing for a believable connection, neither Mr. Eisenberg or Ms Stewart seem fully comfortable in their roles. They fare better in their early youthful, puppy love stage than later when they reconnect slightly older and disenchanted. Playing insecure and neurotic guys are right in Eisenberg's comfort zone yet he has more difficulty convincing us that he has evolved in to this suave businessman. Same goes for the glum Stewart who would be no one's idea of a carefree, sophisticated lady. The natural charisma of Mr. Carell has been drained here, leaving us with a very dour performance which is a waste of his talent.

There are a couple of bright spots to be found in far too brief appearances. Anna Camp hilariously plays a hooker on the first day on the job and Parker Posey, who was a highlight in Allen's last film, "Irrational Man", brings her effervescent spirit as a bleach-blond Hollywood socialite.

With a ending that merely fizzles out instead of delivering some more expected sizzle, "Café Society" is hardly Woody Allen at his finest. Yet if you do admire his clever wit and comedic gifts, then you will certainly find moments that are heartfelt, moving and amusing.