Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Cafe Society

It seems we can't discuss Woody Allen films without addressing his personal baggage.  I can separate the person from his or her art when I like the art enough. That doesn't put me above those who detest Woody and boycott him; I completely understand.  While I despise Jared Leto, Ray Lewis, Ethan Hawke, and have recently added Clint Eastwood to my personal boycott, I give a pass to Ben Rothlisberger, Robert Downey, Jr., Val Kilmer, and others.  As Val's Doc Holliday famously said, "It appears my hypocrisy knows no bounds."

Yes, as a Woody Allen fan, I stand accused, yet I find his 47-film career curious.  Hell or high water, he makes a movie a year.  In his first two decades of filmmaking, Woody hit on all cylinders with a brilliant and eclectic string of films, most based in New York City. Since then, he's expanded his geography but had as many misses as hits.  In the past decade, only three have been worthwhile, although those three are excellent: Vicky Christina Barcelona is a beautiful romantic comedy; Blue Jasmine, Woody's re-imagining of A Streetcar Named Desire, has IMO the single best performance ever by an actress in Cate Blanchett's Jasmine; and Midnight in Paris is in Allen's top five ever.

In Cafe Society, he plows familiar fertile soil.  As he no longer acts in his films, Woody inserts himself into the soul of the protagonist,  Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is so much like Woody Allen anyway that he doesn't have to dig deep into his thespian toolkit.  Bobby grew up in a typical Allenesque neurotic New York Jewish family: a whining, cynical father (Ken Stott); a devout, browbeating mother (Jeannie Berlin); an affable but homicidal brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a fretful, shrewish sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her Leftist, milquetoast husband Leonard (Steve Kunken).

Bobby dreams of a career in the movie industry, so his mother sets him up with Uncle Phil (Steve Carell, who replaced Bruce Willis--fired by Woody Allen for bad behavior), an agent and deal-maker to the stars.  At Phil's office, he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and it's love at first sight with the beautiful, down to earth girl who, alas, loves another man.  Bobby also meets Rad Taylor (Parker Posey) another talent broker with connections in Hollywood and New York cafe society who, along with Uncle Phil, make sure he, too, is well connected.  Still, the disillusioned and lovelorn Bobby remains unsatisfied.  Events flow from Hollywood to New York and a new woman, Veronica (Blake Lively) to complicate matters.  

Cafe Society is Allen's first digitally-captured movie, and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro gives the Golden Age Hollywood and New York a rich and vivid rendering.  The movie is well-cast, and the actors who portray Bobby's family provide gleefully mad, colorful figures.  Steve Carell and Parker Posey, as one would expect, stand out, although Blake Lively is inexplicably given little to do.  Kristen Stewart, however, carries on Allen's string of eliciting strong performances from his leading ladies.  Narrated by the auteur himself, Cafe Society is a bittersweet musing of the road not taken, it's melancholy tone brightened by Allen's signature existential humor. 

Unfortunately, we've seen much of this before.  Woody used to cast himself--and more recently his spirit-characters--as wimpy, neurotic losers who through sheer force of will become irresistible to an array of beautiful women.  It strains credulity to believe that both Stewart and Lively would be attracted to Eisenberg.  (But then, Angelina Jolie once married Billy Bob Thornton, so what do I know?)  Set-pieces of old, like the lobster dinner from Annie Hall, have a madcap choreography that builds to a comic crescendo; an early scene from Cafe Society between Bobby and a first-time hooker strains for those same qualities but achieves only frantic annoyance.  Even the wonderful philosophical quotes have lost their zing: from Cafe Society, "Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer;"  quote from Love and Death (1975): "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he is evil; I think the worst that you can say is that He is an underachiever."  So, Cafe Society is a double-edged sword: it seems unoriginal, but it's still pretty good because Woody Allen is ripping off a brilliant social observer named Woody Allen, and it gains points for its cast, most notably Kristen Stewart.

7 out of 10

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