Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Movie Review: Café Society (2016)



For as much as I’ve argued otherwise, I do understand that separating the actions of the artist with the published art can be harder said than done. The amount of times I hear Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport around my house (long story involving younger siblings) on a daily basis is made even tougher knowing what and where Rolf Harris is writing nowadays. Yes, we’re talking about the king of all things neurotic and Jewish Woody Allen once again, and in an attempt to keep with my central doctrine concerning this, I have actually liked his recent output. From the outstanding character drama Blue Jasmine to the sharply written rom-com Magic In The Moonlight to the wonky but still commendable morality play Irrational Man, I don’t have much to argue with in terms of his artistic output. However, once it gets to the point where said artist essentially inserts himself into the art, that disconnect proves ever trickier. This is Café Society.


The plot: Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a prospective actor in 1930’s Hollywood, works for his talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) in the hopes of getting his foot in the door. While working there, he meets his uncle’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart) and, while the two hit it off, Veronica is already involved… As Bobby tries to make some progress, both with his career and with Veronica, it seems that there is a lot going on around him that he doesn’t see.

Woody Allen’s penchant for star-studded casts stays true here. Eisenberg is essentially playing the role that Woody himself would have played if this was made thirty years earlier, and he does a good job at the unmistakably Jewish mannerisms and awkward social graces. Stewart as the main love interest does well, which should be no surprise considered she and Eisenberg have shown remarkable on-screen chemistry before with American Ultra last year. Carell as the big-wig Hollywood agent fills those shoes nicely, making for some nice deadpan humour on a frequent basis. Blake Lively, Corey Stoll and Parker Posey are good in their roles, if a little underwhelming, and Anna Camp manages to save what could have been an unwatchably awkward scene near the start through some real preternatural chemistry with Eisenberg.

At its heart, this film is basically a lightweight rom-com involving a love triangle between Bobby, Veronica (or Vonnie) and a third party that I won’t mention here because *SPOILERS*. Now, this in and of itself is perfectly fine; hell, the fact that Bobby is essentially having everyone else run circles around him with their relationships and the antics involved is nice and screwball. However, it mainly falls in pretty bland territory as it falls into standard rom-com territory of essentially waiting for the other shoe to drop. Credit is due in that said shoe doesn’t necessarily involve getting the main couple together, but instead waiting for the main character to realize where he stands in the relationship, but it still feels like a lot of waiting. I mean, even with the screwball potential, Bobby’s naiveté makes the first half of this film pretty tedious as we watch and wait for him to get a clue.

It doesn’t help that, in terms of his actions connected to the love triangle, Bobby isn’t exactly the most likeable protagonist. In fact, his attitudes concerning women and the prospect of finding a mate are honestly kind of disgusting. The guy’s extremely pushy when it comes to trying to woo women, to the point of nearing Christian Grey levels of commandeering, and his actions occasionally enter the realms of creepy like with how he gives his wife (minor spoilers, he ends up married later on in the story) the same nickname as his old girlfriend. That could be a matter of opinion, but that didn’t come across as the actions of a well-adjusted person. What’s more is that all of these less-than-commendable actions? Not even remotely funny. Hell, if I’m being honest, most of this purported comedy doesn’t really work.

If it isn’t mired in weapons-grade awkward, or trying to convince us that Bobby’s ugly approach to the opposite sex is something worth laughing with, it’s making statements about the titular “café society” and how vain and soulless the upper class of the time was. Given how Woody Allen is narrating the story himself through voice-over, this reads like Woody Allen lashing out at the champagne sippers of America in his own idiosyncratic way, using Eisenberg as a surrogate for him as the text makes its digs. Considering the relevant fluffiness of the main plot and the general limpness of the script, it comes across less righteous and more astoundingly bitter. This reads like a decades-old angry letter Woody wrote because he never got invited to high-class parties when he was younger. A fairly well-written letter, don’t get me wrong, but that razor-tipped edge to the story doesn’t sit well for a film that’s framed as being this light.

All in all, this is basically what happens when a lauded filmmaker doesn’t age gracefully, as this is a weirdly bitter and mean-spirited film masquerading as a frothy bit of rom-com entertainment. The acting is good and the writing still has that Allen touch that leads to some decent moments, but the overall tone of the film combined with the general disinterest created by the main love plot results in a very disappointing sit. It ranks lower than The 5th Wave, which while definitely worse than this on a technical level, it at least had enough to go from bad to laughably bad; this, unfortunately, couldn’t ever manage that. However, for better or for worse, this still isn’t anywhere near as boring as An so it ranks higher than that.

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