The Drive-In Theater: Cafe Society

Will Schube tries to judge Woody Allen's new flick without having to think about Woody Allen.
By    July 26, 2016

cafe society

Will Schube is the new Mark Zuckerberg.

If there’s ever an argument for separating art from artist, Woody Allen’s got to be a prime candidate to lead that debate. This isn’t an attempt to justify or defend the disgusting stuff he’s done or have you believe that the molestation allegations against him aren’t true. Allen’s movies (especially in this phase of his career) are so pregnant with forbidden and unrequited love that it becomes almost impossible to separate his personal life from these stories. It’s as if he’s inviting the comparison.

With an objective lens becoming more unimaginable by the movie, taking Allen’s work at face value becomes tougher and tougher. Especially these days, when he seems far more interested in making a Woody Allen movie than a good piece of art.

Cafe Society, Allen’s latest ensemble piece, is fine. It’s glamorous and pining for an era very little of Allen’s audience has any interest in remembering. For the film junkie, however, there are a few delights. Cafe Society’s cinematography and sets mirror the era it replicates, and rightfully so. Just as Todd Haynes bathed his Douglas Sirk tribute, Far From Heaven, in colors and frames dedicated to the late, great German auteur, Allen plays with the deep space that dominated the early ‘40s thanks to Citizen Kane.

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The film also recycles one of Allen’s best tricks. As is the case with Midnight in Paris, there’s great delight in watching actors play artists. We get a brief cameo from Howard Hawks, and a wonderful analysis of Joel McCrae’s acting power. There are allusions to Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers. The film could get more run from these moments, but it’s a light touch that keeps Cafe Society moving freely.

The film relies heavily on a smoothly gliding camera, a technique that mimics the movies Allen grew up with and pays tribute to with Cafe Society. The film itself revolves around the love triangle between Phil Stern (Steve Carrell), his nephew Bobby (Jessie Eisenberg), and Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby falls hard for Vonnie, who’s already committed to another man—Bobby eventually comes to find out that this other man is his Uncle Phil (shoutout Fresh Prince). There’s nothing more unnerving than imagining Jesse Eisenberg trying to steal your girlfriend. It’s the absolute worst. 

As is the case with most of Woody’s films, Vonnie is less a character than a pawn over which the two men can make witty banter and chuckle and wax philosophically. She’s caught between two worlds, but the men doing the catching are far more important. The film is plenty content with this triangle as its driving plot line, lingering over mysterious lovers and extra-marital affairs like a whodunnit.

Cafe Society features typical Allen humor, although the self-deprecating Jew jokes are a little more vicious and the fear of death a bit more palpable. The film has too many subplots for its own good, but it’s still a charming, endearing film. It seems at this point that Allen is going to make a movie a year until he ceases to be. That’s wonderful, because I do enjoy his movies. It just seems as if the name attached to the film has now superseded the work itself. 

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Rating: See this movie if you want to. But you really, really don’t need to.