Film Reviews

CAFE SOCIETY

By • Jul 22nd, 2016 •

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Cleverly designed to question your ideas about love. Jeanne Berlin steals the movie.

Walter Isaacson of Time magazine asked Woody Allen if he used his movies to work through dilemmas he faced in life. Allen replied: “No, people always confuse my movies and my life.”

In the 1992 Q & A article, Allen discussed his highly publicized break with partner Mia Farrow over his relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. The interview ended with Allen giving his now famous rendition of the brilliant quote from Emily Dickenson. He said: “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that’s that.”

“The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care” Emily Dickinson

That Woody Allen’s movies are pure fiction I accept, but watching CAFÉ SOCIETY compels me to consider the film as the definitive explanation of exactly what he means.

Woody Allen, whose behavior was condemned by public opinion (and still largely is), said it very clearly: He wanted what he wanted no matter what the cost.

The way CAFÉ SOCIETY is structured is very clever. Allen leaves you questioning your idea of what love means to you if there were enormous obstacles in your way. Would you leave your spouse, children, job, lifestyle, for love? Does “love conquer all” when love seems impossible or is it better to walk away from love if it means disrupting one’s completely satisfied, well-organized life?

The film is narrated by Woody Allen. A mistake since his voice sounds gruff and bored as if he was reading it in a taxi. Perhaps it is Allen’s way of letting us know this story means something personal to him. According to Mr. Allen, making the association of this film to his private life is just plain silly.

It is Hollywood in 1936 and Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a bombastic agent whose life revolves around his intimate relationships with every star in movies. Everything he says has the name of a star attached to it. This is so common it is not looked at as name-dropping, It’s a fact of his life. Stern is not uncouth or vulgar. Knowing stars is the coin of the realm.

While at a mansion party, Phil’s sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) calls from the Brooklyn. Her son is coming to Los Angeles and she wants her brother to find the kid a job.  Phil comes from a Jewish family with a gangster for a brother (Corey Stoll) and a sister, Evelyn (Sari Lennick), married to an intellectual (maybe) Marxist, Leonard (Stephen Kunken).

After arriving in L.A., Phil’s nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) spends three weeks waiting to seeing him. Finally, in the room, Phil agrees to give Bobby a job running errands and asks his secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town.

Bobby quickly falls in love with Veronica but she has a boyfriend. When her boyfriend refuses to divorce his wife and marry her, she turns to Bobby for comfort. They begin their affair and Bobby wants Veronica to leave Los Angeles and return with him to New York. He wants to marry her.

Veronica’s “boyfriend” happens to be her boss, Uncle Phil. Phil realizes he is gravely unhappy without Veronica and decides to divorce his wife. Phil has had a long marriage with a wonderful woman but he is ready to give everything to his wife so he can be with Veronica. First he has to win Veronica back from her new boyfriend.

The problem for Veronica is that both Phil and Bobby are in love with her. She is in love with both of them. Who will she choose?

I rather not spoil the resolution. However, after laying out the scenario, Allen leaves you to decide. Do you follow your heart or your bank account? Life is short, so what would you do?

Carell has become such a brilliant actor. He’s gone from BRUCE ALMIGHTY to FOXCATCHER. Image Carell telling his agent he wanted to go up for the part of John Du Pont. He gives far more to this role than could have been written in the screenplay.

And, with the constant stories about Allen not giving definitive direction to his cast, these performances are really the creation of the actors and actresses. They have to work the part. They must think about what they want to do. And with Allen’s small budgets – his next film starring Kate Winslet is reported to have a budget “just shy of $10 million” – means there is no money for numerous retakes.

Amazon reportedly gave Allen $20 million for the CAFÉ SOCIETY budget of $30 million. It is one of the most expensive films Allen has made.

Stewart is so expressive that her character’s emotional inner life is exposed. Carey Stoll is in everything – with and without hair. Bobby’s parents, played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott are perfect with Berlin so exceptional you wanted more of her.

Bravos to the casting by Patricia Kerrigan, DiCerto and Juliet Taylor.

I am not a fan of Jesse Eisenberg. He is limited in the roles he can play. He is perfect for the roles that are just an expression of alternate versions of himself. But for how long? He is an ideal stand-in for Allen – he’s not particularly handsome and trapped in his Jewishness. All the parts he plays are riffs on the same tone. Eisenberg has been lucky. He should use some of his money to pay someone like Quentin Tarantino (so should a lot of actors and actresses line up behind Kate Hudson) to pull a completely different type of character out of him.

Unlike so many of Allen’s films, where actresses are not treated very kindly by the camera, Allen’s director of photography is the great cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. Stewart has never looked so lovely and gentle. Storaro designs the scenes so that the actor and actresses are in the forefront. I’ll never forget Allen’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS where many of the actresses were filmed with their backs to the camera.

There is a clear message in CAFÉ SOCIETY and Allen has cleverly presented the viewer with an emotional conundrum.

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at victoria.alexander.lv@gmail.com.

 

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