Directed by Woody Allen
There has always been two ways to discuss a new Woody Allen release. As a longtime, yet objective, fan of his entire body of work, or out of context of the greater body of work. I suppose there is a third, but I’m not interested in judging Woody’s films under the spotlight of unproven accusations, or personal vendettas. But, I think if I put my mind to it, I can look at the film through the first two lenses.
As a film, a stand-alone film, not placed in a pantheon of an auteur’s life’s work, I don’t think you would particularly love it. In fact, you might really dislike it. “Cafe Society” moves at a slow pace, the performances are ultra-conversational and Woody’s narrative voice-over seems rather dissociated from the rest of the film. Yet, it is beautiful to look at, many of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny (even if the overall scene-work/premise is not), and the relationships, and the consequences of those relationships, seem very sincere and real. So, a mixed bag, and not a very original bag, at that (but still MILES ahead of the stink-fest, “Irrational Man”).
HOWEVER, as a Woody Allen film, I found it to be pretty, lovingly conceived and rather delightful. I think there is a certain (read: large) amount of forgiveness Woody fans are willing to extend to the writer/director for repeating themes & characters, or lack of high stakes in his films. This is, after all, his FIFTY-FIRST feature! And, if he’s going to rip himself off, he could have picked much worse films from which to do so. In this instance, he has taken the shell of “Radio Days” and imbued it with the fascination and adoration of 1930’s Hollywood that he first fantasized about in “Purple Rose of Cairo”. However, where “Radio Days” was interested in showing us how radio brought world events in to our homes, this film is more focused on the more insular world of the Jewish family dynamic that took place in a New York City borough not called Manhattan. And while “Purple Rose” fantasized about bringing film characters to life, “Society” examines the illusory nature of the studio system. Which is not to say that “Cafe Society” is one tenth as accomplished as either of those films. It isn’t. But it is one of those lovely, languid, memory tone-poems that Woody seems to come back to every third or fourth film.
So, in that respect, does it succeed as an enjoyable movie-going experience? My companion would respond to that question with an emphatic “no!”, but my personal experience of it was MUCH more positive. This is a sumptuous and beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, who has made an Oscar-winning career of shooting incredible period pieces (“Dick Tracy”, “Last Emperor”, “Apocalypse Now”), is the perfect companion to the back-with-Woody-after-a-break production designer, Santo Loquasto. The camera work, sets and lighting are the ultimate counter to the Coen’s “Hail Caesar!”. Instead of using a hyper-real color palette to show the glaring absurdity of the Coen’s Hollywood fantasy, Woody’s film is sepia-toned, ivory, and dream-like, preferring to utilize his script to point out that the absurdity was in the perception of power keeping the fantasy afloat – and out of the consciousness of the ticket-buying public blinded by it.
It IS a slow moving film, as almost every Woody movie has been for the last 15-2o years. But, again, that didn’t bother me in the least, mostly because many of the one-liners are brilliant, maybe more so than in any of his last ten films. He mines well worn territory in this regard…marriage, Jews, philosophy, and, of course, the self-deprecating platitudes of a failed romantic. But what’s in the mine is pretty pure and I felt I would have got my money’s worth from this alone.
But, in addition to the look, and the punch of the laughs, a couple performances stand out as well…mostly the character performances. Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott and Stephen Kunken make the Bronx family real, and deliver the lines Woody would have heard at his childhood dinner table, with natural, if unconventional, timing and accuracy. The stars in the film fare much less successfully, however. As it has long been noted, Woody doesn’t direct his actors so much as tell them to stand somewhere and “go”. This is a huge problem for movie stars without a theater background, and it is a huge problem for Eisenberg and Stewart. They never seem to be in the same film as everyone else (although, Kristin Stewart is shot so beautifully in this film that it almost hurts to look at her). And film actors we’ve come to expect more from, like Parker Posey and Steve Carrell, seem wooden and affected. Special mention to Blake Lively, however, who is lovely and quite convincing.
Finally, the music, the music, the music. The soundtrack has about thirteen versions of “I’ll Take Manhattan” mixed in with a dozen or so luscious jazz standards from the thirties. It’s like putting on a nice warm coat on a chilly day.
I don’t know, maybe I was just in the mood, but, while it’s about 50-50 on how many of the parts hit or miss, I found the sum to be very pleasing.
Written on 7/25/2016