The choice, made by a number of celebrities, critics, and moviegoers, to boycott the movies of Woody Allen is a totally understandable reaction to not only the troubling accusations that have haunted him for decades and resurfaced in recent years, but to his own perceived indifference to those questions. Everyone’s gonna tend their own garden on this one, but I will say this, with no intention of minimizing that decision: boycotting Allen is a much easier call to make in 2016 than it would’ve been in, say, 1986, when walking away from the Allen oeuvre might’ve meant missing the next Purple Rose of Cairo or Hannah and Her Sisters. To stop seeing Woody Allen movies is becoming, aside from other matters, a question of good taste – at least based upon his 2014 effort Magic in the Moonlight and last year’s Irrational Man, a picture so dire, so utterly lacking in basic tenets of construction, dialogue, and blocking, that it raised legitimate questions of mere competence. His new film, Café Society, bests those unfortunate efforts. But just barely.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as “Bobby Dorfman from the Bronx,” who heads out to Hollywood in the mid-‘30s to beg for a job from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), an agent and power player. He goes to work as an errand boy, and in the process, falls hard for uncle Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a down-to-earth charmer who’s sort of over the whole industry. But she’s got a boyfriend, of course, who turns out to be Uncle Phil, of course. Phil finally breaks it off, freeing Bobby – unaware of their entanglement – to make a go of it with Vonnie, but no sooner are they making plans (to move back to New York, this being a Woody Allen movie and all) than the heartbroken Phil, unable to shake Vonnie, finally leaves his wife for her.
All of this is fairly straightforward, and plays out predictably. But Allen’s script is, again, a mess, a first draft that needed at least a couple more passes through his legendary Olympia typewriter. His dialogue, which used to be such a pleasure to listen to, has become almost unbearable in its awkward clumsiness; exposition is dumped haphazardly, minor points are weirdly spotlighted and restated, plot threads are followed to nowhere (I’ve got a shiny quarter for anyone who can explain the business about whether one lawyer or another should be hired), and capable actors drown in the choppy waters of Allen’s off-putting vernacular. He situates funny actors into potentially funny situations (see Anna Camp’s brief bit), but they circle payoffs that never quite arrive.
Entire subplots, meanwhile, are inexplicable. Much time is spent on Bobby’s gangster big brother Ben (Corey Stoll, good), but he doesn’t have much of anything to do with the rest of the movie; his scenes seem primarily designed to remind us what a hoot Bullets Over Broadway was. He does play a part in the film’s other inexplicable subplot, concerning Bobby’s older sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), a philosophical intellectual – every Allen movie needs at least one of those – whose pacifism and reason isn’t getting through to the lunkhead neighbor who won’t turn down his radio. So Evelyn talks to Ben and Ben bumps the guy off, prompting much hand-wringing over guilt and consequences, which has fuck-all to do with Ben and Vonnie and Hollywood, but Allen’s apparently at a point (after Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream and Irrational Man) where he’s going to keep remaking Crimes and Misdemeanors whether it makes any damn sense or not. For that matter, the picture as a whole is awfully reminiscent of Allen’s 1987 masterpiece Radio Days, from the period setting to the New Year’s Eve climax (complete with wistful discussions of the passing of time) to Allen’s narration.
But if that voice-over gave Radio Days an extra jolt of comic juice, the narration in Café Society (as in Irrational Man) is mostly utilitarian, covering plot holes and scenes he didn’t feel like writing, or restating information that’s more than clear elsewhere. In one scene, for example, as we see Vonnie walking with a woman we’ve never seen, Allen’s narration tells us that she discussed her conundrum with her roommate; “two men were in love with her,” Allen says, and proceeds to explain who these men were, as if we just stumbled into the movie. He then tells us how the rooomate felt, and boom, cut to another scene, without a word of dialogue between them. Why is this scene here?
Those aren’t the kind of questions you used to have to ask in a Woody Allen movie, and it is downright peculiar to go, in the space of three brief years since Blue Jasmine, from anticipating his new picture to dreading it. Not that there’s nothing to recommend; though Eisenberg is too mannered by a half (the usual conundrum of the young actors given the impossible task of playing “The Woody Role”), Stewart puts a tart spin on even her blandest lines, and Carell is playing some fun new notes, brusque and fast-talking and hard-edged, but revealing the gooey center underneath. Santo Loquasto’s sets, Suzy Benzinger’s costumes, and Vittorio Storaro’s photography are all unsurprisingly gorgeous (pay particular attention to how Storaro initially bathes California in sun-kissed beauty and washes New York out in greys, and then slowly swaps those palates). And the broad comedy scenes with Bobby’s family are funny as hell – again, shades of Radio Days.
But it’s still a long way from even middling Allen, and that’s the heartbreaker – that the shine of his filmography and the remaining prestige of his productions continues to not only draw an (admittedly decreasing) audience and critical circle that’s positively Kevin Smith-ian in their unquestioning dedication, but onscreen collaborators who still consider getting cast in a Woody Allen movie to be the mark of true credibility. It’s become clear that Allen’s controversies aren’t going to keep name talent away from his films (even when called out by those names). So when will their poor quality start to matter?
Café Society is out Friday.