By Elias Savada.
Problems are afoot in Woodyland. The jokes are there, albeit fleetingly and the best ones deal with gallows humor. The romantic comedy-drama script seems regurgitated from some of director-writer Woody Allen’s earlier works, and his alter-ego, Jesse Eisenberg, is back (after 2012’s To Rome With Love) for a genial, but ultimately lackluster stroll through Hollywood’s past. There’s no magic in Café Society.
My dad would have liked it. His friend, Vince Giordano, is back leading his band, The Nighthawks, doing lovely tracks on the film. And there’s a devotion to the music of the era with recordings by Benny Goodman (dad’s favorite) and Count Basie. Allen used to visit my dad’s record shop in NYC and select 78’s from his vast collection. Dad’s only gripe would be Allen placing a song too early in an era in his films. Overlaying the soundtrack, you’ll hear Allen’s monotonous narration, which powers the film closer to the reject bin than the turntable.
Allen replaced his usual cinematographer of late, Darius Khondji, with three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro for the first time, supplementing the always finely detailed work from his longtime production designer, Santo Loquasto, but the new team’s efforts result in a distracting, over-drenched honey-dripped 1930s Hollywood heyday look. The look is often soft focus or the look as if viewing the film through gauze (a popular technique in the 1920s and 1930s). And, if you get bored with the golden-hued, L.A.-based segments (the film begins and ends in New York City), you can play “Count the Stars.” No, they don’t appear on screen (other than a few black-and-white snippets from popular films of the time), as many literati did in Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), but instead flow from the lips of its various actors, particularly Steve Carell (previous Allen exposure: Melinda and Melinda), who replaced a fired Bruce Willis the first week of filming, and Kristen Stewart (The Twilight Saga). Stewart and Eisenberg are paired for the third time after the amusement park summer romance Adventureland and the genre-mishmash (and box office flop) American Ultra.
Of course, Allen chooses a Bronx Jewish family for examination in his latest work. Oy. (Insert Borscht Belt shtick here.) Robert Jacob “Bobby” Dorfman (Eisenberg). is a disillusioned young man who wants no part of the family jewelry business and the dreary New York scene. He heads to Los Angeles to see if his bigwig uncle Phil (Carell) can find him a place in his Hollywood agency. There’s a running gag here about the lengthy three-week attempt for the relatives to finally meet up because uncle is just so damn busy. Bobby spots Phil’s Nebraska-bred assistant, Vonnie (Stewart), and love sort of blossoms. Not everyone is on the up-and-up as the dynamic between Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil festers, peeling away revelations in casual conversation. An odd man out situation depresses Bobby so much he heads home to work with his jovial, unscrupulous gangster brother Ben (a very nice Corey Stoll) running a popular night club. The film breaks the bi-coastal elements into halves. Bobby eventually finds insubstantial romance back home with a high society divorcée played by Blake Lively, while his family (mom-dad-brother-sister-et al) pop in and out of the storyline.
There’s a smugness in the humor, the plot is a whimsy in this uncomfortable love story, and fragmented, compressed timeline that is often confusing. Café Society is another trivial trifle following last year’s Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight a year earlier. Why is Allen putting out this lesser fodder when he’s fully capable of much better stuff such as Blue Jasmine. The 80-year old Allen needs to accept the fact you can’t keep putting out the same picture every year. He’s obviously no Clint Eastwood.
I got to thinking about Spike Lee and his films. A “Spike Lee Joint,” he calls them. Woody is in danger of having fans christen his movies a Woody Allen Fluff. Café Society offers up a dose of nostalgia in a cup of weak tea.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).