CAFÉ SOCIETY (2016)

CAFÉ SOCIETY

Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell, Corey Stoll

***1/2

Out of ****

I love Woody Allen films because I skip all of the bad ones.

Recently while corresponding with a pal, about the quality of Allen’s efforts over the last 20 years – I pondered whether there’s a more maddeningly inconsistent filmmaker working today. Then before I even received an agreeable or dissenting opinion, I realized there’s no comparable American filmmaker; at least not one that comes to mind. No one has churned out film after film, year after year – for 4.5 decades like Allen has. Spanning A-list actors and actresses of the then and now, swinging back and forth between the darkly cynical and the whimsically funny; fluctuating between masterpiece and mailed it-in; this inconsistency has begun to define Woody’s body of work and that ironically makes him perhaps the most consistent director working today.

Woody Allen has made some of my favorite films of all time (Annie Hall has being one of my four favorites since I was like 13), but it’s funny how I take his constant output for granted - this probably has as much to do with his maddening inconsistency as it does with his (putting speculation on validity aside) off-putting personal scandals. Each year he churns out a new film, there’s about a 1 in 3 chance I’ll see it and the odds that it is any good are probably even less than that. A new Woody movie is an inevitability, usually one I don’t pay much attention to until I am fairly certain it’s going to be good. I didn’t see the one with Joaquin Phoenix, the one where Colin Firth dates Emma Stone, the other one with Jesse Eisenberg, the other other one with Scarlett Johansson; I did see Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris and Match Point. What’s funny is if Woody simply took off the year’s where he struck out, his output would probably remain amongst the most anticipated of filmmakers working today, even at the age of 80.

I am happy to report that Woody’s new film is a delight. A light effortless, period piece comedy punctuated occasionally with stealthy melancholy. Taking the role of the Allen surrogate this go around is Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a great bounce back performance after his hideous portrayal of Lex Luthor from earlier this year. Eisenberg plays Bobby, a 20-something kid from a New York working class Jewish family, who moves to Hollywood with hope of working for his sardonic Agent of the Stars Uncle; in the ultimate pursuit of rubbing elbows with the movie-star elites. Bobby's Uncle is played by the pitch perfect Steve Carrell, marking his second collaboration with Allen and first since 2004’s Melinda & Melinda; Carrell replaced Bruce Willis who Allen allegedly fired for exhibiting some Bruce Willis-like behavior. Recently Woody himself seems to have resigned to the idea of no longer being in front of the camera but he does in Cafe provide some perspective-less narration that pushes the story along. It’s nice to have Allen’s neurotic voice back in one of his films, even if he sounds a bit like he’s battling a horrible cold. Opposite Eisenberg is the stunning and always great Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, a secretary working for Bobby’s uncle who has grown quite tired of the glamorized Hollywood scene but somehow can’t seem to stop talking about it. The cast is rounded out nicely with some great supporting turns from Corey Stoll – who plays Bobby’s gangster brother that has a nasty habit of... killing people - and Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s overbearing mother.

Starting out similarly to Joel & Ethan Cohen's satire of 1950s Hollywood from earlier this year Hail Caesar! albeit two decades earlier and a little more grounded – Café quickly evolves into a vehicle for its two leads and their on and off unrequited love. Eventually shifting into a tale of the consequences of romantic ultimatums, and the effects this brief relationship has on Bobby and Vonnie into the future. There’s a moment about 2/3rds into the film where Bobby forces Vonnie to make a choice then and there between himself and an up until that point mystery ex-boyfriend; the choice she makes ends up seemingly defining them. Haunted by a dream of a life that never was; Café would really make a great romantic “what could have been” double feature with Scorsese’s Age of Innocence. Each film exploring the consequences of not following one’s heart, and the irreversible effects of saying ‘yes’ or 'no' to someone – from the perspective of some rather unlikable and wealthy narcissists.

This is Allen’s first film shot digitally, and it really looks incredible. The sun-splashed Hollywood of yesteryear of the first half contrasts brilliantly with the extensive palate of the various New York City locations in the last third. Woody’s dialogue is as sharp as ever and delivered brilliantly by Eisenberg and Stewart, this would make a great stage play. It's the two leads that carry the film and make it’s rather startlingly tristful last act land home. This is Stewart and Eisenberg’s third film together and their chemistry is so believable that I left with a heavy heart, even though the characters of Bobby and (to a lesser extent) Vonnie on paper are rather detestable. The two of them end up living the lives they’ve sought or at least the lives we believe they wanted, but one important thing is missing – each other. As we leave them surrounded by the cheeriness of two simultaneous New Year’s Eve celebrations,  waiting for ‘the changing of the year’ as everyone around them looks forward, they are unable to move on despite being encompassed by the glamour and wealth they had sought. Things tend not to workout for the romantic subjects of Allen's films, and Bobby alludes to the writer/director's view of relationships and life in general early on, even before everything turns to dust. Having all the things the've always wanted isn't quite enough - "Life is a comedy, written by a sadistic comedy writer,” Bobby muses - to which we respond "or by a certain 80 year old filmmaker."