I have a confession to make: I like Woody Allen movies. Unfortunately saying that today doesn’t mean the same thing it did 20 years ago. It used to mean you consider yourself to be intellectual enough to get the often pretentious humour of his films. Nobody considered an Allen comedy to be a guilty pleasure, like say an Adam Sandler movie might be, but something that film buffs announced loudly and proudly. While he has consistently put out a film every with year (albeit with inconsistent quality), the conversation has changed. Now when one announces an affinity for the work, you’re not saying that you have good taste or that you’re smart enough to ‘get it’, you’re saying that you choose to disregard the allegations.
It’s a tricky situation when an artist’s personal life becomes inseparable from his or her art. In this case it doesn’t help that Woody Allen puts so much of himself in his films. Even his latest, Café Society, which he doesn’t act in, features his unmistakable voice as the narrator. This is also his third film in a row that features an older man with a younger woman (Emma Stone and Colin Firth in Magic in Moonlight, Stone again and Joaqin Phoenix in Irrational Man, and now Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell). The age differences of these romantic pairings are barely even acknowledged, but that speaks to a larger issue in Hollywood than Allen’s personal preferences.
I don’t pretend to know who or what to believe when it comes to the public accusations of Allen’s wrongdoings, but I still can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt for continuing to enjoy his output. Having said that, I really enjoyed Café Society.
Set in the 1930s and bouncing back and forth between New York and LA., the film contains many classic Allen staples: a love triangle (with the aforementioned age difference), jazz clubs, the movie business, gangsters, an eccentric Jewish family, and a fetishism for the past. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a young man who moves from New York to L.A. in hopes of working for his uncle (Steve Carell) who happens to be one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood. Bobby falls for his uncle’s secretary (Kristen Stewart), whom it turns out his uncle is also in love with. Nothing much new here, just another love story with some of Allen’s trademark witticisms and insights into how relationships work out (or don’t).
What really sets Café Society apart from the rest of Allen’s filmography is the cinematography of DP Vittorio Storaro. Even though Storaro has been shooting movies as long as Allen has been directing them, this is the first time they’ve worked together, and the DP makes his presence known with some of the nicest images in an Allen film since Manhattan. While Café Society is no Apocalypse Now (which Storaro also shot), he captures the era with such beauty and warmness that it’s almost impossible not to relate to Allen’s nostalgia for the period. Café Society also marks the first time Allen has shot on digital, and yet it looks more cinematic than any of his films have in decades.
Second only to his writing, casting has always been Allen’s greatest strength. Eisenberg is an excellent Woody proxy and adopts the author’s voice in a natural way that doesn’t come off like an impersonation. Steve Carell continues to surprise and impress in roles you wouldn’t imagine he’d be right for, and Allen once again proves that nobody is using Corey Stoll to his full potential. As Bobby’s gangster brother, Stoll steals every scene he’s in just as he did as Hemingway in Midnight in Paris. Adventureland, American Ultra and Café Society now form a sort of odd trilogy of comedies that Eisenberg and Stewart have played romantic interests in. Just by virtue of our familiarity with them onscreen together they at the very least give the impression of “chemistry.”
Café Society is easily Woody Allen’s best work since Midnight in Paris, hopefully the mysterious series he’s working on for Amazon can reach some of the same heights. In my opinion, you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of seeing it based on principle. If you don’t want to support Allen or get caught with a ticket stub for Café Society, you could always just steal it*. No one will know.
*stealing is illegal.