***1/2 out of ****
Every time I enjoy a Woody Allen film and want to recommend it to others, I find myself stopping to rethink my stance on loving the art of an artist who may be guilty of a heinous crime. History has proved that many great thinkers, leaders, artists and athletes have been repulsive in their personal lives, but we still choose to focus on their great contributions, especially when time gives us distance from their wrongdoings.
I’ve always maintained strict objectivity regarding these issues. Nothing stops me from enjoying the energy of Mel Gibson’s acting or Roman Polanski’s direction, but recently I found myself taking all my Bill Cosby standup albums down to the basement. I guess the line is drawn somewhere.
At the moment, I continue to enjoy Woody Allen’s work, which has impressively been given to us yearly since before I was born. In his latest film, Café Society, Allen vents his regular frustrations by giving us another story about characters struggling to get any satisfaction out of life. As I, and many fans of his work can attest, this auteur’s gloomy content quite often comes across as warm and comforting. Maybe we need therapy.
The early twentieth century continues to be Allen’s muse through old jazz recordings, period costumes, and lavish locations. While he has been casting himself in his films fewer times every decade, he steps into this one by providing a third-person voice-over narration, while Jesse Eisenberg serves as yet another fitting surrogate for the Allen character.
The movie is about a Jewish family from The Bronx during the 1930s, but it mostly focuses on the youngest son (Eisenberg) going to Hollywood to visit his very successful movie mogul uncle, played with pompous intensity by Steve Carell, in the hope of getting a feel for life in the movie business. While there, he falls madly in love with his uncle’s secretary, played by Kristen Stewart, but is oblivious to an affair going on between the two. Meanwhile, the eldest son, played by Corey Stoll, is finding a high place as a New York club owner, which has only been achieved through his life as a murderous gangster.
In what must be a turning point of compromise for Allen, this is his first feature to be shot digitally, but through the absolutely stunning work of the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) it may be among the best looking of Allen’s films.
The movie may have Allen’s humor, but it also reminds me of the way Scorsese nonchalantly portrays blue-collar families who have criminals among them, while meditating on all the characteristics of American life from a bygone era.
The natural chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (who are sharing the screen for the third time) is another charming aspect of the film as they explore the glamour of old Hollywood together while bonding with desire for a life devoid of such phoniness.
The movie isn’t aiming for big laughs or heavy drama, but it has that pleasant atmosphere that can be found in most of this auteur’s films, most of which have a theatrical presentation quality that is undervalued by people who wait to see his work on home media. Seeing this film’s characters live through success and disappointment has the effect of a stage play with extravagant scenery and lighting.
It’s rather telling, through his work, that Allen’s soul is a tortured one and I believe that all people should be held equally accountable for their crimes regardless of their status. Time will tell if another bittersweet gem from this man will be remembered for its expression of melancholy in love and loss.