Mark Reviews Movies

Café Society


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Paul Schneider, Anna Camp

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking)

Running Time: 1:36

Release Date: 7/15/16 (limited); 7/22/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 22, 2016

Woody Allen's Café Society is a winding road to nowhere that eventually features the writer/director himself noticeably scratching his head about what it all means. That is ultimately the point, we have to assume, since the philosopher among this cast of characters says so outright on a few occasions. All of life is meaningless, he is reported to believe, so it's essential, he concludes, to find beauty in that meaninglessness. That and a dime won't get you much of anything. The movie is set in the mid-1930s, so perhaps we should adjust that calculation for inflation.

Allen does, primarily by inflating the call for recognizing the beauty of the chaotic, trivial workings of the world with a romanticized portrait of the Hollywood and New York City during that era. These are people and places seemingly untouched by the Great Depression. The characters enjoy lives of cushy jobs in the entertainment and leisure industries, parties with the cultural and economic elites, and tangled, bittersweet romances that lean more toward the sweet side, even in heartbreak. The darkest side of this tale involves a mobster who murders people with little reason and without remorse, but even that is played with a lighthearted air. When everything means nothing and nothing means anything, a string of corpses buried in concrete surely doesn't matter.

This is to say that it all feels phony. Even Allen seems unconvinced, and that's not some hypothetical assumption. The filmmaker narrates his story with an intonation of disbelief that borders on boredom. Many of the characters' motivations and rationales are left to the narration, and it begins to sound as if Allen is working harder to convince himself of the point than he is to convince us.

The tale centers on naïve Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) from the Bronx, who moves to Los Angeles after becoming disillusioned with his father's (Ken Stott) jewelry business. Bobby's mother (Jeannie Berlin) calls her brother Phil (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent in Hollywood, to ask that he give Bobby a job in the business. After some stalling, Phil gives Bobby a job as one of his assistants. That's when the young man meets Phil's secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart)—short for Veronica. The kid is instantly in love, but she has a boyfriend, who turns out to be Bobby's married uncle.

The first half of Allen's screenplay suggests a romantic comedy of errors (Bobby's encounter with a first-time prostitute, played by Anna Camp, and the resulting circular conversation feel like vintage Allen). Once a romantic triangle comes into play, there's a fairly elaborate setup of accidental knowledge and unintentional revelations. Basically, Bobby is the only one who doesn't know about Vonnie and Phil, but since he's a confidant to both parties, he ends up helping them as a couple while destroying his own chances with the woman of his dreams.

This premise is summarily dismissed in the second half, as Bobby returns to New York, gets a job as the manager of his gangster brother Ben's (Corey Stoll) legitimate nightclub, and meets another woman named Veronica (Blake Lively). One night, Phil and Vonnie show up at the club, and Bobby has to deal with the fact that he's still in love with her.

The movie then becomes a story of regret and guilt, even though the comic setup of the first half doesn't help to establish that shift. Much of the underlying thematic weight of the movie, then, is left to the narration, as Allen explains the characters' doubts and realizations without allowing the characters themselves a means to show these moments (Eisenberg and Stewart are charming in spite of their characters' lack of development). Part of that is because the subplot involving Ben's criminal activity eventually comes home, as his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), the previously mentioned philosopher, have different reactions to unintentionally putting a noisy neighbor in mortal peril. Leonard, with his near-nihilistic view of life, becomes the closest the movie has to a moral center, but even his qualms with the fate of the pesky neighbor are played as a joke when juxtaposed with his wife's indifference.

If the ellipsis of the ending is any indication, Allen is attempting to tie this story of impossible romance to the seemingly random thoughts of the ancillary philosopher. The fact that none of this goes anywhere is the crux of Café Society. The problem is that Allen doesn't seem to care.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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