Friday, July 29, 2016
Woody Allen's Cafe Society Spoiler Review
Radio Days: The film Cafe Society most resembles on the surface is Radio Days (1987). Both films are period comedies narrated by Woody. Both films include scenes of middle class life next to scenes of people who have really made it. Some of the most amusing stuff in both films are asides about moneyed individuals and their interesting lives. The best characters in both films are supporting characters. Society is not quite as episodic or as creative.
Sweet and Lowdown: Unrequited love is a theme running through Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and Cafe Society. In Lowdown, Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is a jazz musician who makes his best music after he does not get the girl because the music is sadder with more feeling. Bobby, (Jesse Eisenberg) in Cafe Society, begins the film as a under-confident creep with odd mannerisms (His nervous scene with a part-time hooker might be the worst scene in a Woody Allen movie). Once he falls in love in Von (Kristen Stewart), he becomes the best version of himself. He becomes super confident and goes from Hollywood assistant (thanks to his uncle) to New York nightclub owner (thanks to his brother) mostly on the strength of his self-confidence. In both films, the lead character is in love with someone (Emmet Ray with Hattie) then suddenly married to someone else. Veronica (Blake Lively) is such a wonderful character, and Bobby is so smooth when he picks her up. (Unlike Emmet Ray ending up with Uma Thurman's character which seems at best a chemistry free plot device) that one is confused when Bobby still pines for Von. I grant you that Von helped make Bobby who he becomes, and Stewart is very warm. But Eisenberg and Lively have such easy chemistry that the movie might have been better if Lively and Stewart's roles were reversed. Emmet is left devastated without Hattie. Bobby is left...wistful. It is a slighter response in a slighter movie.
Manhattan: Like Cafe Society, Manhattan (1979) is concerned with maintaining personal integrity in a world that has a lot of phonies (I would bet that Woody got a lot out of Catcher in the Rye as a young adult.). Von and Bobby, as they are courting, make fun of the pretensions of self-involved Hollywood. Von ends up marrying an executive and telling the kind of stories she used to abhor. Is she a phony? I don't think so. She changed; she fell in love with executive Phil (Bobby's uncle overplayed by Steve Carrell), and took up some of his interests. At least she is more authentic than Bobby, a depressive who works as an effusive club owner. She knows she loves Phil and would not stray (outside of a kiss or two) while Bobby thinks he loves Veronica, but would leave in a minute if Von asked him too. The true authentic characters in the film are the other members of Bobby's family. Rose and Marty are the parents. Leonard (Stephen Krunken) is Bobby's brother in law. He is a moral man who loves his wife and wants to always do the right thing. To contrast, Ben (Corey Stoll), Bobby's brother, is a gangster. He lives by his own moral code. He is as right as any of us, though for the first time Allen does not glamourize gangsters and the violence here is bloody and hard hitting. He is eventually arrested and put to death. He is Jewish, and seeing no heavenly future in that, converts to Christianity. He does it so sincerely, bravely and matter of factly; I wish Allen would have spent more time on this this conversion. It is worth noting that Bobby's parents (played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) have a discussion about this conversion that is possibly the funniest and most honest conversation ever depicted in a Woody Allen film (which is really saying something). It is worth the price of admission by itself. Also worth noting, Krunken and Stoll deserving supporting actor nominations.
Woody Allen has such an impressive body of work and so many recurring themes that it is hard to see one film without comparing it to another in some way. I think of Judah (Martin Landau) in Crimes and Misdemeanors and his passive acceptance, as time passes, of the murder he was involved in and hope that there is no similar acceptance of Bobby and his marriage, as one stays married, they have another baby and eventually warm feelings take over for the hot impulses, the character of Veronica deserves much better than that.
If I were to take the film completely on its own merits, I would say it needs an editor and could probably lose twenty minutes. Howard Hawks once wrote that a good movie is two or three good scenes and no bad ones. Cafe Society has two or three great scenes, two or three great supporting characters and a few bad scenes. It would call that a good movie.