Wednesday, August 3, 2016

In Theaters: CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cast: Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schneider, Anna Camp, Douglas McGrath, Tony Sirico, Richard Portnow, voice of Woody Allen. (PG-13, 96 mins)

CAFE SOCIETY is the annual Woody Allen obligation, 2016 edition, and it's his strongest work since he directed Cate Blanchett to an Oscar in 2013's BLUE JASMINE. Latter-day Allen, particularly in this decade, is wildly inconsistent, ranging from his biggest commercial success in decades with 2011's MIDNIGHT IN PARIS to two of his career worsts with 2012's completely phoned-in TO ROME WITH LOVE and 2015's embarrassing IRRATIONAL MAN. Mainly, late-period Woody consists of mildly enjoyable trifles that are forgotten soon after watching. His 47th film as a director in 47 years (1981 was the last year he took off), CAFE SOCIETY isn't top-tier Allen by any means, but it's better than a lot of what he's done in the last ten or so years, exhibiting a bit more ambition and depth to go along with the requisite Windsor font-opening credits set to a scratchy jazz standard (most of the compositions are new recordings by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks). Working for the first time with the great Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (LAST TANGO IN PARIS, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE LAST EMPEROR), Allen achieves one of his best-looking films with the digitally-shot CAFE SOCIETY, which has a lot of laughs but is never played too broadly, with a melancholy streak that grows more apparent as it goes on.

In late 1930s Hollywood, idealistic young Woody surrogate (Allen himself narrates the film, and the 80-year-old legend's voice is starting to sound a little frail) Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives from the Bronx, hoping to land a job with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent-to-the-stars. A relentless name-dropper ("I'm expecting a call from Ginger Rogers," he says to anyone who will listen at a posh party), Stern wheels and deals and can barely make the time for his nephew, but he does get him some gofer work delivering messages and driving people around. Bobby eventually works his way up to script reader for a big studio and falls head over heels for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), one of Phil's secretaries. Vonnie is flattered by Bobby's attention, but she's already in a relationship. Unbeknownst to all parties--initially--Vonnie's boyfriend is the much-older Phil, who's ready to leave Karen (Sheryl Lee), his wife of 25 years. When Phil decides he can't break his wife's heart, Vonnie and Bobby become a couple and it isn't long before they all realize their connection, and Phil finally walks out on his wife, insisting he'll kill himself if he can't be with Vonnie.

This plotline takes up most of the first hour of CAFE SOCIETY before Allen does a bit of a time jump in which Bobby has left Hollywood and has moved back to NYC, working as a manager at a swanky club owned by his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a mobster gaining notoriety in the city. We see a vastly different Bobby from the shy, nebbishy, Woody-type we saw in Hollywood. He's cool, confidant, and a player. Allen does some clever misdirection here with the presentation of this "new" Bobby, almost as if a chunk of the movie was missing. And just when you're thinking this change in Eisenberg's performance seems forced and lacking in credibility, that's because it is. When the Hollywood past comes blithely strolling into his brother's Manhattan nightclub, that facade immediately vanishes and Bobby is Bobby again: awkward, hesitant, unable to look someone in the eye. The only difference is that it's now accompanied by a palpable anger. Eisenberg has done some great work (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, THE SOCIAL NETWORK), but when he gets too "Eisenberg"-ish, he can be an acquired taste (his dreadful performance in BATMAN V SUPERMAN is a perfect example). His Allen impression in the first half is among the better ones Woody's commissioned for his films (remember Kenneth Branagh's cringe-inducing Woody in CELEBRITY?), but the actor is able to build the Bobby character using the Allen persona as a starting point, and the abrupt switch from man-about-town Bobby to the real Bobby is some of the most convincing work Eisenberg's ever done. This is his third pairing with Stewart, after ADVENTURELAND and AMERICAN ULTRA, and they really click here, as do Eisenberg and Blake Lively, who turns up in the second half of the film as a new object of Bobby's affections. Jeannie Berlin steals every scene she's in as Bobby's mother, taking the "harping Jewish matriarch" stereotype and running with it, along with Ken Stott as Bobby's grumbling father, who's always complaining about his brother-in-law Phil ("You don't just walk out on your wife because a newer one comes along" he tells his wife, adding "You're not winning any beauty contests, but I stuck with you!"). CAFE SOCIETY is as thematically and stylistically formulaic as almost every other Allen film, but there's a little more substance to this one than he's demonstrated in his more recent offerings. Judging from the pattern, Woody's 2017 film should be a disappointment, but in the meantime, CAFE SOCIETY shows the legendary filmmaker in pretty solid form.

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