Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Nosh 27: 'Cafe Society' & More

By David Elliott

Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, served fresh each Friday.


APPETIZER (review of Café Society)
A sad feeling crept over me as I watched Café Society – that I was visiting the gilded tombstone of Woody Allen’s long, prolific career. It wasn’t only that Allen, narrating, sounds old (he’s 80) with a voice now darker, dryer, with a touch of wrinkled crepe. No, it’s because everything in the movie, even the young actors, seems stuck in the amber of the past, in a deluxe dossier of old Woody themes and jokes and familiar types. There really is no café society now, nor nightclubs in the classic sense. In hankering back to their best era (the 1930s), with less wit than he showed in Midnight in Paris, Allen seem to be filing himself away.

The movie is, almost literally, set in amber. Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris), who is to succulent color and “magic hour” cinematography what Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) was to impeccable black-and-white, has shot ’30s Hollywood as Allen’s nostalgic dream of a magic hour that never quits. Every building, set and costume is a pampered palette of rose, cream, umber, beige, honey or radiant gold, with contrasts of palm green and deep red. The young lovers, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) have reddish hair. Inevitably, the film they see in a plush movie palace is Barbara Stanwyck’s Woman in Red. Meanwhile, the more enjoyable, effervescent Parker Posey, bleached into peroxide blonde, is used as a plot decal, a throwaway.

Café Society is like one of those fold-out postcard packets of Old Hollywood vistas, found in collector shops. But Allen’s script is no collectible. Bobby is a bright, restless, Jewish fella who left his dull New York life and kvetching, sit-com family to nab a job from Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a film-biz agent who knows all the stars and studio chiefs. Bobby falls fast for Phil’s office “girl,” Vonnie, who sorta, kinda falls for him. Phil sloppily hides his affair with Vonnie from his wife. Carell is very good at bossy squirming, guilty pleading, pledging love while fielding calls and schmoozing clients. But neither love tangle has any special heat or force. They’re petrified soap, like a bad old “woman’s picture.”

Part of the problem is the young stars. As Bobby, Eisenberg is a deft actor with glints of charm. But his reedy, boyish voice and hunched, Ed Sullivan posture make his Romeo contortions rather pitiful. He seems a chump, because Stewart plays Vonnie as a sexy climber who will follow her “heart” to lush security. Allen keeps strumming the notion that the two have a haunted, recurrent attachment, even after he spits on the Hollywood fantasy he has gilded, by declaring it shabby and shallow. As often before, the director is enchanted by the freshest young female, even when she turns on the Woody-nerdish hero, and even after Bobby finds a wife (Blake Lively) who is more beautiful, loyal and deserving than Vonnie.

By then, Bobby’s gangster brother (amusing Corey Stoll) has got him work at a Manhattan nightclub, where he becomes the imposing manager and host (if you believe Eisenberg as that, I’d love to pitch you on him as Rick in a Casablanca sequel). Allen, never an L.A. fan despite his love of movies, flees homeward to his New York turf and set-up gags that were old when he was writing for Sid Caesar. The Jewish family stereotypes are so primordial that even Jackie Mason might wince and mumble Oy vey. Meanwhile, vintage tunes keep coming, elegant sights keep glowing, and our minds are wondering: Is this the last woo from Woody?     

SALAD (A List)
Here are My Ten Favorite Woody Allen Movies, in order of affection: Zelig, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Take the Money and Run, Midnight in Paris, Husbands and Wives, Love and Death, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (avoid at all costs: Interiors).

WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Orson Welles’s last years became a litany of creative rejections, often “very hard news. Frank Brady writes that admirer Jack Nicholson refused to halve his usual $4 million starring fee, which would have let Welles cast him and win backing for his last major project (The Big Brass Ring). Six other big stars, all ‘friends,’ also turned him down. It’s enough to make you weep, and at least once (Brady found) Welles wept. Here is Orson near the end, lunching with Croesus-rich Steven Spielberg, and supplicant Welles has to pick up the tab.” (From my 1989 San Diego Union review of Brady’s Citizen Welles).

ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
The pinnacle moment for Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face was her ravishing rush down steep Louvre stairs to photographer Fred Astaire’s camera: “I was scared stiff I’d break my neck,’ Audrey recalled. ‘High heels, all those steps, Givenchy’s full-length gown. Thank God, Fred got me in one shot.’ The stunning image, freeze-framed in seven color changes, is an apotheosis and a promise of any musical’s chief motive: love.” (From the Audrey Hepburn/Funny Face chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available on Amazon, Nook and Kindle).

DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.

Zelig (Woody Allen), second from right, with new friends in Zelig (Warner Bros., 1983; director Woody Allen, cinematographer Gordon Willis)

For previous Flix Nosh meals, scroll below.


  1. I walked out on "Interiors." It took me three or four tries -- I'd start to get up, then sit down again -- but I finally escaped. I think I was afraid that if I didn't get out of there I'd be trapped forever in that creepy minimalist mini-verse.

  2. I remember coming out of Interiors in a dull Waspy daze, equally blaming Woody, Ingmar Bergman and the interior designer from Good Housekeeping.