Cafe Society (2016)

Admittedly I am very late to the Woody Allen films. I only started earlier this year, picking up Annie Hall (1977) which blew me away in terms of comedy, writing and just pure originality. For it’s time quite and could easily knock some contemporary comedies out of the water. My next Allen was far more recent with Irrational Man (2015) which was another kind of Allen, a murder mystery – of sorts, A lite comical murder planned and committed by Joaquin Phoenix whilst having a fling with one of his students. The soundtrack stuck in my head, a clever use of Northern Soul. In short I was hooked on the director and wanted more, more than I could find. I bought a box set which I am eager to make my way through. With the re-release and remastering of Manhattan (1979), which quite honestly not just blew me away but took me to another place that I had not seen in film. A romantic comedy with an affair and the neurotics of Allen paired with Diane Keaton could work in a perverted where having an affair was kind of OK. The dynamics constantly changing, such a dark part of adult of life treated with a light touch. It was note perfect, and visually spellbinding – even on a small TV I was in awe of it all.

Moving onto my next film Cafe Society (2016) didn’t take me long to see the similarities between this Hollywood period romance and Manhattan. Yes it’s another compare review, which’s going to be a challenge – bring it on. What begins as a period piece, once again in the golden age of Hollywood, we are at a party and introduced, not to one of the leads but the uncle and agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) who can;t help but name drop, actually all them in L.A. can’t help but name drop. The aim to immerse us into the classic world of the big names that we associate with that era. You can see which ones that Allen grew up with, thankfully none of them make an appearance, it’s an exercise in nostalgia for the writer director who has nothing to prove now really. Stern takes a phone call from his sister back in New York advising him that her son, his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is coming out to live there, or as we find out to escape his old dull life.

We go into the classic routine of exploring Hollywood, Beverley Hills, the Walk of Fame – all the touristy things, except this is all happening, histories being made whilst Bobby is finding his feet in the city of dreams. In between doing jobs for his uncle he’s being shown around by Stern’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Things are starting to look very familiar as we replace Keaton with Stewart and Allen with Eisenberg. It first hit me when he talked himself  in and out of having sex in 2 minutes, it’s just typical of Allen’s own on-screen roles (that I have seen so far, limited I know), transferring from older to younger, the emotions and persona of a vulnerable yet confident man remain, minus the intelligence of the older that would make Eisenberg look arrogant in this role. Stewart doesn’t even come close to the free-spiritedness and independence of Keaton, yet the younger pair do have chemistry and that matters in any romantic film.

The next really strong connection to Manhattan was the reveal of the man who Vonnie said she was going out with – Sterns, yes it’s an affair. This is the journalist boyfriend whose always traveling to be seen. The affair dynamic really shows up how strong the plots are similar, yet the way this relationship works it’s not as polite and open between the two men who shared Keaton’s Mary between Isaac (Allen) and Yale (Michael Murphy), obviously at the same time or an audience just wouldn’t accept the film, one relationship ends before another. In the Hollywood of Society we see the woman being shared, yet torn between the two men. One experienced and able to provide a good and stable life and on the other hand you have a dreamer who is full of passion – which would you go for. Well this crazy lady goes for the guy who couldn’t make his mind up for a year. Just h=shows how imperfect we humans can be. That;s one of the rare sentiments you can take away from this film, more so in Manhattan when the realisation of what you had been so much better you’ll do anything to get it back.

I next noticed when the action moved and stayed in New York we have the horse and carriage ride in Central Park. It feels like Allen’s just going back to old imagery – as much as he tells us he doesn’t hold Mahattan in the same regards as everyone else, he knows what works and reuses it. I was reminded of the gorgeous black and white cinematography, that conjured up nostalgia for the older scene that has cultural resonance not the newer film that merely recycles a cliché.

Yes I am only four films into Allen’s overe and may find this repeated over, it maybe just that being in central Park invites you to use this cliché time and again, I just hope I’m proved wrong. I don’t think it helped that it feels like a reworking of the classic in bright colour which doesn’t help my viewing.

Away from the comparisons, it relies heavily on narration, by Allen to progress the plot, it feels like we’re being insulted, as it pushes it along faster than we need it to be. Again Allen narrated the earlier film, well he introduced chapter one, which showed a vulnerability of the writer whose about to open up. Except here the ego of the director creeps in here, nearing Quentin Tarantino territory when he takes ownership of the film, not only did he write it, but he has to read aloud too. That point aside we have see Bobby’s gangster brother getting into trouble and finally caught. For a while I was wondering why were spending so much time go back and forth between New York and Hollywood. It does build up what is going to happen as a Jewish family is somehow unaware of what he’s been up to. Which really sums up how naive Bobby really is to life and those around him. He has experienced to worlds, one of excess and glamour, another of corruption and crime, all of which don’t really effect him. He’s more than happy to live in them as long as he’s not really affected by it. When Vonnie and Stern are in New York we can see how far the characters have come and what they have achieved. Leaving me disappointed really as the two could have got back together but we are left cruelly and frustratingly in the dark. It does set the two films apart, that there is no satisfying conclusion – both the guys get the girl, well the girl they started out with.

On balance Cafe Society takes the same basic story and attempts to reinvigorate it, with a tonne of film nostalgia which is absorbing. With an ensemble cast where you get to see enough of everyone to make it worth them being there. However the basic plot smells of Manhattan which really disappoints me, maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge on the director, does he recycle plots or was he just taking one that works and twisting it for a new film. Please tell me he was just having a bad day.


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