Some things never change. The sequel will always pander sadly to the potency of the original (sorry, “Toy Story 3”), Meryl Streep will always be an untouchable glamour queen who can do no wrong, and Woody Allen movies will invariably begin with blithe narration and serif-font credits.
His latest, “Café Society” – which is a fun summer watch, by the way – is no different. An almost surreal, highly saturated scene introduces Steve Carell, canoodling with some of Los Angeles’ brightest starlets while Allen narrates. Carell plays Phil Stern, a high-power agent during Hollywood’s Golden Age, bringing his wife along to pool parties in Beverly Hills. His socializing is regularly interrupted by phone calls, and the plot kicks off with one from his sister, whose son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg doing his best Woody impression) is planning to move to LA from New York, and is looking for work.
After weeks of silence, Bobby is invited to do menial errands for Phil, working alongside his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby develops a crush, but learns that Vonnie’s not single; she’s involved with a married man. A typically Allenian love triangle – one that later morphs into a square before morphing again into another many-sided geometric shape – emerges, recognizable to fans of “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” and his other films that have since become classics. The tension between characters arises from their constant, stifling emotional proximity; friends become lovers become friends again, and partners turn into ex-partners before reuniting. The effect is an anxious feeling on the part of the viewer, one that matches the racing thoughts of unhealthy love affairs. “Get out!” you want to yell at his hopeless couples. “Leave the room! Take a walk! Get some air!”
Usually, Woody Allen plays one of the spurned characters, left alone to contemplate the absurdity of romance. In “Café Society,” Eisenberg serves as his stand-in, an outsider enjoying the thrumming pulse of New York City, a place where he feels superficially connected, but emotionally isolated. If this sounds like “Annie Hall” or “Insert Pretty Much Any Other Woody Allen Title Here,” that’s because the sentiment is the same; the West Coast sun coaxes you into a comfortable lull, while the East is uncomfortable but lively. Kristen Stewart’s bluntness and naivete match Diane Keaton’s, and the endearing, fumbling male protagonist stays the same while the world around him shifts and quakes.
When the movie ends, he’s left pontificating just as he was at the start, but we, the viewers, are able to leave with a sense of closure that’s often lacking in real-world breakups. The movie’s over! The serif-font credits are rolling! We can throw out our empty, greasy popcorn bags and step out into the daylight.
This is the allure of Woody Allen’s timeless template: he manages to make the examined life worth watching. But how can movie lovers reconcile what he’s serving with what a complete scumbag he is IRL?
Of course, to put it that way is to undermine the seriousness of his alleged crimes. It would be futile to argue here the evidence that’s been presented against him, but the views about women espoused in his movies alone are enough to raise questions about how he treats – and thinks about – women. The much-older man pursuing the much-younger woman has become a trope so prevalent that it’d be easier to compile a list of Allen movies that don’t adhere to it (“Blue Jasmine,” a recent example, is his most critically acclaimed film in recent years).
With “Café Society” he returned to his stalwart plot device, and audiences laughed along with it. When Bobby laments that his wife is a different person after having a baby – everything’s about the baby now, he sighs, without lifting a finger to help out with child care himself – he begins to stray, reconnecting with his earlier, childless fling.
It’s the kind of plot setup that would make viewers cringe at the smarmy hero, who would need scenes’ worth of context, explanation, and redemptive apologies, if it were set in the present-day. Twenty years ago, Allen could get away with it. Today, audiences would be reluctant to embrace a hero – or a director – whose only redemptive qualities are his self-deprecating jokes and his charming bluntness.
But, “Café Society” is set in the late ‘30s, and such a retrograde view on relationships is acceptable – even funny – in that context. We can suspend our judgment, and enjoy it guilt-free.
In recent years, Allen has had success with similar historical love stories. 2011’s “Midnight in Paris,” a time-traveling exploration of love and nostalgia, was set amid the Lost Generation’s time in the city. “Magic in the Moonlight,” a 2014 film set in France in the ‘20s, has a similar vibe.
Allen is far from the only director guilty of casting young women love interests opposite older male protagonists; ageism in Hollywood, specifically concerning women, is rampant. But he confronts the theme directly, with narrators mulling over their own behaviors, which actively objectify young women. Should he continue to explore that theme in his art, here’s hoping he does so in a way that’s plausible – by rooting his stories in decades past.
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Follow Maddie Crum on Twitter: @maddiecrum