“Half bored, Half fascinated” at Woody Allen’s Cafe Society.

It was nice to hear an audience laugh to Woody Allen’s latest film. It was nice to see somewhat of Allen’s film style revive; something we did not see in his latest films. It was nice to hear him narrate Cafe Society (2016). My mother, who usually sleeps in screenings, did not fall asleep. She laughed too. She was pleased. And I think everybody in the audience was. But was it only a load of laughs?

It is 2016 and Allen has released a film… again. If you’re up to date with Woody Allen, you’d know Irrational Man (2015) and Magic in The Moonlight (2014) were a disaster. I mean disastrous in the “Woody Allen” sense: great acting, remarkable cinematography, astounding production design, but no heart on the writing. Amazon Studios acquired Woody Allen’s new film (Amazon last films have been a success: Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq). It has been a while since Allen wrote a fascinating screenplay. I think the key to a good Woody Allen movie is Woody Allen himself acting (an exception: Blue Jasmine (2013), you’ll have a beautiful film with the majestic Cate Blanchett). Since Allen’s last filmic appearance, he tends to cast actors who portray his similar quality of cynicism, with a touch of humor and neurosis. In Cafe Society, Jesse Eisenberg plays the typical, cynical Allen character in a superb style: Bobby, a 1930’s Bronx native who heads to Hollywood to work with his uncle, star agent Phil (Steve Carrell). Bobby appears optimistic of the California environment. He says he is “half bored, half fascinated,” he knows change never hurts anybody. Spoiler: none of Allen’s protagonist can survive outside New York. In order to fully have the dreamy Hollywood experience, Bobby falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a captivating girl who is uncle Phil’s secretary… and lover.

Woody Allen’s love triangles are my fetish. The lovers involved constantly lie to each other and their feelings. No one ever gets out safe– and at least one of them gets brutally hurt and lonely. Vonnie and Bobby are too young and romantic to get corrupted by Hollywood. On their first outing, Vonnie takes Bobby to adventure film stars’ mansions. The two of them wish their lives were as luxurious as the mansions, but they prefer to stay “smaller than life.” For the first part of the film, Stewart plays a sweet and naive girl in love with Bobby. She then plays the girl who falls into materialism, and begins to tell stories of trips to Europe and dinners with celebrities. Stewart’s performance delivers a kind of 1920’s jazz rhythm, very Woody Allen-y. She embodies the pure essence of Allen’s classic indecisive, damaged women. “She’s actually smiling!” I heard in the audience. Stewart is mesmerizing on screen; the warm, golden colored cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris) gives to Cafe Society converts all characters into Golden Age Hollywood stars. Storaro goes from dark, blue colors in New York to bright, golden colors in California– the two cities look different, but the same “boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry” occurs on both. Bobby returns to New York and delves into the obscure life of the nightclub “Cafe Society,” which is owned by his brother Ben (Corey Stoll).

In Manhattan (1979), Allen finalizes the film with the hopeful thought that perhaps “not everybody gets corrupted.” Now, in Cafe Society, Allen disagrees and practically affirms “all get corrupted!” Naturally, Allen and his movies have changed. Perhaps we now live in a more broken society, surrounded by more mundane people and soulless tasks, that in the end, do corrupt us. The whole film has the sensation of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting about high-society night life and the people fabricated by it– but colorless. Allen addresses the putrid conversion of Vonnie, but seldom performs it in a way that should frighten, or sadden us. I see the characters, but I cannot feel them. Stewart and Eisenberg were able to revive that old Allen-style through mannerisms and attitudes. They charged the film with amusement. But even as Allen narrates inner emotions of his characters, there is no real interaction between us and them– like Tracy and Isaac Davis in Manhattan where the feeling of misery lingers throughout the movie. Can a writer only give half of his heart to a piece of work? I believe so, because this happened in Cafe Society. Cafe Society is neither a comeback nor a disaster for Woody Allen; it is another 1930’s humorous movie with beautiful cinematography and terrific actors.

More reviews: Check out my film website: cinemasmuse.wordpress.com

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