Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Café Society (2016)

Film: Cafe Society (2016)
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll
Director: Woody Allen
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Years ago, I decided there were ten directors that I was going to see every film they ever made as a bit of a directors project.  Admittedly, I'm still working on all ten (does anyone else have a problem where they sign up for more projects than one human being can actually accomplish?), but one of them was Woody Allen, one of only four directors on the list who actually is still living and therefore continually adding to the list, so seeing Cafe Society was kind of a given for me.  I honestly don't even watch the trailers to Woody's films any more (which is strange because Allen is one of the only film directors around who still finds a way to be mysterious and not give away his secrets in the trailers) since I know I'm buying a ticket, and since I start cold, let's start cold for you too without any spoilers.

(Spoilers Ahead) Like most of Allen's pictures (perhaps all of them-I can't think of one that doesn't), we get our resident Woody Allen character, though in this case it's a proxy in the form of Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman, a young Jewish man who is trying to find his way to fame and fortune in Hollywood, and has an in with his uncle Phil (Carell), a high-powered talent agent in the 1930's (yes, we're time-traveling, keep up).  While working there, he falls madly in love with Vonnie (Stewart), a beautiful secretary who once had dreams of becoming a starlet but now has settled for the quieter life, finding more solace in a quiet Mexican restaurant than the glamorous homes in Beverly Hills where Bobby has hopes of taking her.  The film progresses as we find out Vonnie has been having a love affair with Phil, and is also smitten with Bobby, and is forced to choose between the two.  Because this is an Allen picture, she ends up with Phil (Woody loves the bitter with the sweet), and both she and Bobby transform as a result.  Bobby ends up married to a glamorous model (Lively) and becomes a high-powered club owner in New York, while Vonnie gives in to the vapidness of California culture and becomes part of the moneyed class she once disparaged.

While the film ends with the two of them apart, both with partners who adore them but longing for perhaps something more, the movie itself is content to just end and not really commentate too harshly on the choices we make and how you either need to accept your decisions or spend life with a mountain of "what ifs."  The film itself has a strange and plodding subplot with Bobby's family involving the mob, and not even Corey Stoll (arguably the best part of the picture, but he's the best part of every picture) can make you care about it in comparison to the love story, and the subplot gets unnecessarily dark with Corey's character getting the electric chair off-screen for killing his sister's annoying neighbor.

Overall, the film is okay.  The love triangle somewhat works, and Stewart is now confident enough as an actress (she actually had to audition for the film, purportedly her first audition since Twilight) that she sells the glamour and sex appeal of her character without a lot of stoicism.  Her Oscar-nominated costars aren't nearly as good, however.  I honestly felt like Eisenberg vastly overplayed his character's obtuse intellectualism, drawing too much on a parody of Woody than on something organic for the screen.  Carell, who was so marvelous in The Office and Little Miss Sunshine but largely hasn't impressed me in recent work, fails to deliver.  His dialogue is fun (I loved the constant name-dropping, particularly since it's 1930's Hollywood so it's more Gloria Swanson and Joel McCrea and less Marilyn and John Wayne, so it isn't as done), but his character is obnoxious and it's never clear other than power what Vonnie sees in him, and he doesn't give us that.  Is she so lost that she just projects onto everyone, or does Carell undersell his character's appeal even when she's onscreen?  I tend to think the latter, and so I would say he's the biggest weak link in the picture.

Those are my thoughts on this short, but overall less-than-impressive entry in Woody's canon.  No one will confuse this with Annie Hall, or even Match Point or Blue Jasmine, but if you have seen it please let me know some opinions-what are your thoughts about the latest entry?  Who was your best-in-show (I'm torn between Stewart, Stoll, and the great one-liners of Jeannie Berlin)?  And do you think that Woody should have put up with the ego of Bruce Willis and kept him in the picture (I tend to vote yes-this feels like the sort of part that Willis, an underrated actor, could have brought something special toward)?  Share in the comments!

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