Woody Allen’s latest is a breezy, familiar tale of love found, love lost and lost love pondered with bittersweet regret. Set in the 30’s and spanning a few years in 90 minutes, Café Society (2016) charts the course of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he heads from New York to Los Angeles to find favour with his famous star agent bigshot uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Offered a bottom-feeder job and an attractive underling Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him the ropes around town, Bobby finds himself content to mingle on the fringes of fame at parties, roving the sidelines and making himself known. Meanwhile he daydreams of courting the vivacious Vonnie with whom he has obvious chemistry and would like to spirit back to the Big Apple, the place he still yearns to be. A nasty twist is in store for Bobby however when he discovers that the love of his life is actually the young lover his influential uncle is working up the courage to leave his wife for. So who will ultimately win Vonnie’s attention?
Back in New York, flickering attention is paid to Bobby’s nefarious older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) who is mixed up in all manner of illegality and headed for an inevitable fall. Their sibling Evelyn (Sari Lennick) also gets a look in, her quiet domesticity with intellectual husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) disrupted by a potentially criminal element as well in the shape of a threatening neighbour who may require tempering by Ben or his henchmen. Bobby’s return to New York sees him buying into one of his brother’s clubs where he puts his own stamp on the venue, leading to an attractive, enviable place of social mingling for the city’s high-set. But just what is that hollow spot settled deep inside him still, despite the gain of commercial success, financial solidity, a beautiful wife and a newborn child?
In a role that doesn’t stretch him, Eisenberg is very solid here, a recommendation I rarely offer considering how profoundly irritating he can be). His onscreen pairing with Stewart is becoming an almost weirdly regular event. She’s fine too, exerting an easy magnetism as Vonnie and in so doing, sustaining what has been a fine, revelatory year of performances after Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016) and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016). Carell is surprisingly well cast as the obnoxiously self-obsessed Phil whilst Lennick, Stoller and Jeannie Berlin, emitting a perfect pitch Jewish whine as the Phil’s poor sister Rose, round out a strong ensemble.
Café Society is enjoyable fluff, but strictly minor league Woody Allen in every respect. Low-definition characterisations, clichéd dialogue, the director’s predilection for samey jazz and his own annoying voiceover narration prove to be other downgrading aspects of the production. But despite these failings and a paucity of ambition, Café Society is amiable, neat and quintessentially Woody. Woody aiming far lower than he did with his recent masterful duo, Midnight in Paris (2011) or Blue Jasmine (2013) without doubt, but Woody nonetheless. Though it should invoke apathy and discontent, there’s a strangely lamentable comfort in that.
Woody Allen makes no secret of the famous literary work most influential in the writing of his screenplay for Irrational Man (2015). Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is sighted and cited in this enjoyably tension-free drama of a philosophy professor filled to the brim with ideas but no longer a zest for life itself. Trapped in a vault of dark contemplation from which even his physical comfort in liberal sexual relations has been short-circuited by his malaise of despair, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), enters a new university – with each fresh residency his reputation precedes him with even loftier notions of – and the circuit of a curious student, Jill (Emma Stone), who quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed with him. An unquenchable thirst for knowledge and experience – in direct contrast to that provided by her squeaky clean boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) who wears her gifted sweater as a badge of honour and wholesomeness – soon turns to romantic delusions of her compatibility to Abe. This is further reinforced the deeper she probes, uncovering a circuitous torture of dissatisfaction and apathy that she’d love to correct with the alluring distractions of her youthful presence.
In the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s classic however, it’s contemplation of the murder of a life that contributes nothing useful to the world that kick-starts the fire in Abe’s belly. Suddenly he becomes enamoured with life’s renewed possibilities, the thought of eliminating a negative force for the betterment of the world, in this case a pitiless judge whose prejudicial behaviour has ruined the life of a mother seeking fair play in retaining custody of her children. Abe is alerted to the judge’s existence by an overheard conversation in a diner and the path is set for a perfect crime to be plotted and executed. All sorts of moral boundaries are examined and cross-examined and if Allen’s digressions are camouflaged in blackly humorous asides, there’s enough seriousness here to provoke thought as the crime exposes, as it inevitably must do, a series of playfully dangerous options for the cocky, renewed Abe.
Will he confess in the manor of Dostoyevsky’s tortured Raskolnikov? Will the sly dispatching of the judge be the beginning of a murderous spree that strengthens him physically and restore his mental balance? Or will his new found expression of joy for living be only momentary as he’s undone by hubris like countless perpetrators before him? With its hilariously tasty final twist, Irrational Man stands as a strong addition to Allen’s filmography. Though it’s not in the same class as his recent creative high points, Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), it does straddle a too rarely inhabited middle ground of quality, in so doing helping to erase memories of the director’s recent diabolical flops like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and the especially awful When in Rome (2012).
As usual, Allen’s casting is spot on, with Phoenix in fine form as the unhurried, laid-back Abe whose apathy seems to be more characteristic of the actor’s process with his very idiosyncratic line-recitations. Few performers, it seems, are capable of providing such a strange but utterly compelling mix of inward-gazing intensity with a cheerless playfulness that only reinforces the inscrutability around his character. The sparky Stone holds her own and even if her performance doesn’t require her to stretch in the way Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu asked her to in Birdman (2014), there’s nothing left hanging in her credible portrayal of the smitten Jill. Parker Posey has a juicy role as a fellow faculty member who unsubtly attempts to bed Abe from the moment he arrives to escape her own failing marriage, whilst the rest of the supporting players form a steady wall of secondary support.