The Film Room, with Chris Corbellini

The best film reviewer we know, Chris Corbellini, is back with a review of Woody Allen’s latest effort

Cafe Society


by Chris Corbellini

Woody Allen’s CAFÉ SOCIETY is another reminder that the filmmaker considers living in Hollywood one small step above taking up residence in a port-a-potty. It all stinks: the film industry, the phoniness of the people, and how the promise of fame or something circling it can seduce and morally corrupt even the most golden and sincere of people.

The movie is a comedy, naturally. Or close to it.

Out there in the perpetual sunshine, a wannabe actress is asked if she wanted to be larger than life, and the girl answers “I’d rather be life-sized.”  From there, the man she’s with is in love. The sweetheart is named Vonnie, played by Kristen Stewart, and the suitor is Jesse Eisenberg, who should be named Young Woody Allen, but instead it’s Bobby. Both characters are relatively new to the Hollywood scene in the 1930s. She tells him there’s a boyfriend but he can’t help himself, and they go to the movies together and share personal victories.

Just like in ADVENTURELAND, there’s a third character in this triangle, and it’s Steve Carell’s alpha Hollywood agent, Phil Stern. The movie opens with Carell at a swank party in the Hollywood hills, and he takes a phone call there – which he explains must be Ginger Rogers, desperate for new representation. It begins to feel like this is a movie about the day-to-day for Super Agent Phil. But no, instead it’s Phil’s sister, who explains that Eisenberg’s character is headed his way, and can he show his wide-eyed nephew the Hollywood scene, and maybe get him a job? After a waiting out period, Bobby finally gets an audience with Uncle Phil, who introduces him to Vonnie to show the newbie around.

After a few scenes in darkened cocktail bars and hotel rooms bathed in candlelight, it turns out Uncle Phil and Nephew Bobby have the same taste in women. So Vonnie must choose between the pair while she’s standing behind a counter as a coat girl: the wealthy power player who can’t walk three steps without behind stopped by another wheeler-dealer, or the tender young man who promises her a life of happiness in Greenwich Village.

Bobby does return to New York for a surprisingly long section of the film, and begins working for his nightclub-owning brother, a gangster played by Corey Stoll (who will always be Hemingway to me). There, Bobby finds his footing, his fortune, his wife and a family. And the moment he has it all together — a realistic rival to his Uncle Phil in terms of connections and wealth — his past returns asking for champagne and talking like a Hollywood a-hole.

The look on Eisenberg’s face at that moment is absolutely fantastic in its misery.  Allen found a young doppelganger of himself for this role — but Eisenberg is no lightweight, instead of mimicking Allen’s nervous, insecure energy, he finds the sweet spot of being the naïve New Yorker in La-La Land, and then, ultimately, a slick, wealthy man back on the East Coast. It’s a stretch to make the actor a ladykiller, but Eisenberg does fine overall. The cast is solid across the board – especially the delicate Stewart — which is what Allen demands of his performers and crew.  There’s a rumor that wormed its way all the way to IMDB that Allen fired superstar Bruce Willis for forgetting his lines, and replacing him with Carell while shooting. If true, that’s probably a first for Willis since the 1980s. On screen, Allen plays nebbish, but behind the camera, he’s as cutthroat as anybody.

So, yeah, the crew behind the scenes brought their ‘A’ game too. What surprised me the most about my time in Los Angeles is how even the major talents in that industry – editors and shooters for example — have to crank out the sausage of lesser work, collect the paycheck, and hope a biggie comes along. I was reminded of how the production quality is always top-notch in Allen’s films during the final shot of CAFÉ SOCIETY – with that classic POV of an actor from behind, his head eating up the foreground, surveying his surroundings. It usually portends bad things ahead (check out the shot at 2:41 here) — and perhaps in this movie, too, regret will eat away at the character involved.

There’s a line in Allen’s MANHATTAN that stands apart from the rest of his occasionally epic writing, and it’s this: “I think the essence of art is to provide a kind of working through the situation for people, you know, so you can get in touch with feelings you didn’t know you had.” I think it nicely encapsulates his film career. In the right places here in NYC, I hear opinions on what art is and should be from all types – some full-of-shit, some world-class talents, some passionate educators, and then of course the full-of-shit talents that also happen to be educators. After 43 years, this is mine: if a piece unconsciously pulls you to a different place in your head – nostalgia, a specific memory, a specific person, a scenario that played out in your life, an aspiration, or what lies ahead — then it’s most definitely art. Could be bad art — certainly a bad piece of art will make you disengage and check your watch. Could be transcendent, if you’re lucky. But it’s art.

Back to Woody. At this point many people cannot separate Allen the man from the writer/director anymore, and I confess, sometimes I can’t either. There’s a reference in CAFÉ SOCIETY about a wealthy socialite and his underage wife that made me wince – a subtle fuck you to the lot of us who want to know more about a celebrity’s private life.  And here comes the big but – BUT, his filmography has taken me to that different place more than any other movie director I’ve stumbled across. I’ve watched MIDNIGHT IN PARIS five times now, and after the first viewing I’ve had to force myself to stay in this scene (from about 2:03 on here), because I instinctively drift to my own life. And he’s capable of magic in spots when you don’t expect it, even if it means breaking the rules of gravity to do it. None of this means he’s the best in the business.  Or my personal favorite. What he is, undeniably, is a working artist, still cranking ‘em out in his 80s, still hating on LA, and still looking to put a masterpiece on canvas.

CAFÉ SOCIETY is not at that level, it’s sort of in the middle if you had to rank his works, but the theme is solid nonetheless: It’s the choices you make that determine what’s happened and what’s ahead. Vonnie and Bobby get it at the finish. So do we.

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