The new Woody Allen movie looks great. It positively sparkles with beauty. And no wonder: The cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro, whose list of credits is too long to detail here. However, it would be remiss not to note “The Conformist” and “Last Tango in Paris,” both directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and the three films for which Storaro won an Academy Award: Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds.” (He also shot Beatty’s striking “Dick Tracy,” for which the Italian received an Oscar nomination.)
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But Storaro’s talent is not the only reason for the film’s glitziness. It’s also because the first part of the story is set in 1930s Hollywood and the second part in an exclusive New York nightclub – and this is how Allen wants us to remember them. The problem is that the stunning exterior only serves to emphasize the interior hollowness here.
The first Allen film to be shot digitally, the plot revolves around the story of unfulfilled love – the kind that haunts you for all eternity, even if you’ve created a different life for yourself. But how can this theme be brought to the screen without an ounce of emotion? (Absence of emotion has always been a big problem in Allen’s movies.)
Only a few of his films have avoided this lacuna, and they’re his best works. And the problem has worsened as the years have gone by. “Blue Jasmine” (2013) is the only Allen movie in the past few decades that contains emotion, in large part thanks to Cate Blanchett’s performance in the title role. Yet even there, on further viewings one notices the way in which emotion is infused into the movie like a kind of intravenous injection – and that includes Blanchett’s performance, which seems more calculated every time you see it.
In some cases, the lack of emotion actually dovetailed with the cynicism that characterizes Allen’s screen work. But there’s no room for cynicism in “Café Society.” And that, together with the emotionlessness, renders the picture completely inconsequential. If cynicism really was the intention here, why aim it so specifically at such powerful romantic longing? What does this say about the person who created this movie driven by a sense of yearning?
Nor is this the film’s only weakness. At times, it actually seems to have been written by Neil Simon, not Woody Allen (the protagonist occasionally reminded me of Eugene Morris Jerome from Simon’s “Brighton Beach” trilogy). The story concerns Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s sent from Brooklyn to Hollywood in order to work with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a highly influential agent during Hollywood’s golden age. Allen is familiar with classic cinema and admires it, but if viewers think they’ll learn something about the modus operandi and power brokers of 1930s Hollywood from this movie, they’re dead wrong. (The Coen brothers recently dealt with 1950s Hollywood far more cleverly in “Hail, Caesar!”)
The whole engagement with Tinseltown consists merely of name-dropping – and most of the names that are dropped (as in “Yesterday I ran into Myrna Loy” or “Ronald Colman told me that”) will mean little to viewers unfamiliar with the history of Hollywood. Indeed, some will probably not be able to tell whether the names refer to real people or invented characters.
Phil, who is married to Karen (Sheryl Lee), is also having an affair with his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby falls in love with her, too, but she rejects him, saying she already has a boyfriend. It’s here that the movie makes its first big mistake. As long as Bobby and Phil are sharing their romantic concerns, without realizing that they’re talking about the same woman, this situation could be the basis for a comedy that references the brilliant screwball comedies of the 1930s. But Allen is quick to make it known to both the uncle and hisnephew that they’re hooked on the same girl. The result is that any potential comic tension is lost immediately.
Stung and hurt, Bobby returns to New York. In the second half of the film, his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) appoints him to manage the most exclusive nightclub in Manhattan (from which the movie takes its name). Bobby also marries a woman named Veronica (Blake Lively) – and it’s hard to recall another example in which a character played by a relatively well-known actress was of so little interest to the director. If this is meant to represent Bobby’s attitude toward his wife – he still longs for Vonnie – it not only doesn’t work but is positively cruel.
Naturally, Bobby meets Vonnie again, when she visits his nightclub. She is now a member of Hollywood high society, her captivating simplicity replaced by snobbish superciliousness. She also might regret losing Bobby, but the film addresses the romantic conflicts with such superficiality and alienation that it’s hard to know. Worse, we don’t really care. Whether he’s grappling with existential angst – as in his previous film, the equally disappointing “Irrational Man” – or with unrequited love, like here, Allen is defeated by his perfunctory and emotionally cold approach.
By the way, whatever happened to Allen’s vaunted sense of humor? He tries to inject a few quips here and there, but they sound forced – and we’ve already heard better versions of them in his other films.
“Café Society” is yet another of those movies that Allen gives us every year. While his work ethic is laudable, the end results are becoming less and lessrewarding.