Sunday, May 8, 2016

Café Society (2016) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Anthony Lane for The New Yorker magazine, on July 11, 2016.

The new Woody Allen film, Café Society, is set in the nineteen-thirties - you know, that far-off land where movies were movies, cars were like boats, and a guy could wear a suit the color of peanut butter and still look good. Aside from a glance at things to come, in Sleeper (1973), Allen’s preference, as a time traveler, has been for an express ticket to the past. The trip hasn’t always worked out, and Allen has been sage enough, in Zelig (1983) and Midnight in Paris (2011), to remind us how frail and treacherous history can be; and yet, more often than not, the destination has been a haven. Just look at The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), or the melodious Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Allen was born in 1935, which is why a movie like Radio Days, though full of tall warm tales, feels less like a fantasy and more like a family scrapbook.

The hero of the new film is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in the Bronx with his father, Marty (Ken Stott), and his mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin). We first meet Bobby as he arrives in Los Angeles, hoping to try his luck with his Uncle Phil. This is not such a bad idea. Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood agent, and we first meet him in a tuxedo, beside his pool, encircled by the beau monde of his trade. I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers, he says. Phil is forever expecting, taking, or making calls, although we never see the stars to whom, or of whom, he chats - not because he’s a fraud but because the movie gods of that epoch were and remain, to anyone of Allen’s vintage, beyond human reckoning, and certainly beyond impersonation. Likewise, when Phil gives his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the task of showing his nephew the town, what she and Bobby do is stand outside the homes of stars and gaze. They might as well be staring at the night sky.

The one place we do see a celebrity is onscreen - at a movie theatre, where Bobby and Vonnie watch Barbara Stanwyck, in Lady in Red (1935). It’s a perfect choice by Allen: not a great film but the sort of entertainment that - so we like to tell ourselves - swept smoothly into view on a regular basis. (And Stanwyck, in close-up, makes you catch your breath. That’s not nostalgia; that’s awe.) By now, needless to say, Bobby and Vonnie have grown close. Bobby is a klutz of the heart; rather than simply falling in love, he tumbles and trips - nicely caught in Eisenberg’s voluble patter, dotted with hiccups of anxiety. But there is, as there always must be, a hitch. Vonnie is stepping out with someone else. Worse still, the stepping needs to be stealthy, because the someone else is Uncle Phil.

Love triangles, like other forms of romantic geometry, are nothing new in Allen’s films. What’s different about Café Society is how casually the telling of the tale proceeds. It’s not that Allen is going through the motions but that the motions no longer consume him. (That could imply the mellowing of the years, but consider Robert Bresson, who was Allen’s age, in his early eighties, when he made L’Argent (1983) - a narrative as taut as piano wire.) The Phil-shaped twist, for instance, is introduced early, without a scrap of suspense, and, when we tack back East, to a subplot about Bobby’s no-good brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a hoodlum whose idea of friendly persuasion involves a pit of wet concrete, the mood of the movie barely skips a beat. People get shot in front of us, yet we are left with the shrugging sense that no harm was done. Later, with Ben’s backing, Bobby returns to New York, and they open a night club. It thrives, attracting the same brand of tony folk who had once thronged around Phil’s pool. A resourceful clan, the Dorfmans.

None of this, you could claim, is remotely credible, but Café Society does not seem like a confection or a skit. There is a gravity to it, and a tug of sadness, that cannot be accounted for by the story. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), ostensibly a far more serious film, Allen says, of show business, that it’s worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls. In Café Society, the hero says, of Hollywood, It’s really a kind of boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry. No kicker, no laugh. The performances, too, shy away from the nutty and the broad, and Carell, a master of the brave face, does a fine job of suggesting the strain behind Uncle Phil’s bonhomie. Better still is Stewart, who, despite the girlish touches in her outfits (headband, white ankle socks with strappy sandals), reveals a woman veiled in ruefulness, and her final moments, in which Vonnie muses on paths both taken and spurned, are a lovely act of suspension, done without a word.

If this film has a secret, it dwells in the cinematography - by Vittorio Storaro, no less, who shot The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and Apocalypse Now. He worked with Allen on a segment of New York Stories (1989), but Café Society marks their first full-length collaboration, and the result is ravishing to behold - more so, I think, than any Allen picture since Gordon Willis filmed Manhattan in black-and-white. No one has delved more fruitfully than Storaro into the depths of color, exploring its contribution to political and physical extremes, and you could argue that Allen should have summoned him sooner, to chart Cate Blanchett’s prostration in Blue Jasmine (2013). Is Café Society too slight an occasion for Storaro’s inquiring art? Maybe so, yet there are scenes here - particularly the interiors, in Phil’s office, in the bar where Phil takes Vonnie on the sly, and in Bobby’s lowly apartment where Vonnie had promised to cook Bobby a dinner for which she doesn’t show - that burn almost painfully with Woody Allen’s yearning for the past. It lies there glowing, as recognizable as a movie star and as homely as a hearth, forever out of reach. [Lane’s rating: 70 out of 100]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

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