Café Society, out in wide release this week, is not a good movie. Its plot is weak; its characters are flat; it seems to have no artistic or moral convictions save for its recognition that love can be really awkward and that Kristen Stewart can be really pretty—but all that seems, at this particular moment in the affairs of the world and in the career of Woody Allen, to be somehow beside the point. The movie premiered in May at Cannes, as the film festival’s opener. It was financed by Amazon—which paid a reported $20 million to secure the rights to it—as part of Amazon Studios’ bid to compete with Netflix and to establish its artistic legitimacy. Café Society has improved financially on Allen’s other recent work: Last weekend it earned $355,000 in theaters in New York and Los Angeles alone—enough to give it, according to Indiewire, “the biggest limited opening of 2016.”
Woody Allen makes “pictures,” rather than movies; that alone might help to explain Café Society’s success. Allen is an icon, after all, not just of nebbishy narcissism, but also of the bygone era in which movies were one of the few, and most significant, mechanisms the culture had for talking to itself. Allen claims to reject nostalgia—“nostalgia is a trap,” he has said; “it’s a pleasant, sticky substance, like honey, that you fall into”—and yet his recent films, many of them dubbed by critics to be “love letters” to some forgotten dream, have gone to pains to celebrate what came before: the age when filmmakers were also auteurs; the age when a famous person could claim, with some degree of believability, not to read his own press; the age in which a documentary about a celebrity’s life could stay silent on the allegations, waged against him by his daughter, that he molested her when she was 7 years old.
Café Society, too, pulses with a palpable longing for that which was and will never be again. It is Allen’s love letter to Old Hollywood, or more precisely it’s another of Allen’s love letters to Old Hollywood. Set in the 1930s—the decade, perhaps not uncoincidentally, of Allen’s birth—it revolves around Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, serving again as an unsubtle stand-in for Allen himself), who leaves his home in the Bronx for Los Angeles, in search of a new job and a new life. Bobby relies on his uncle, the high-powered agent-to-the-stars Phil Stern (Steve Carell), to help him to settle in; Phil accomplishes this mostly by introducing Bobby to Vonnie (Stewart), Phil’s languid, limpid secretary. Bobby immediately falls in love with her. She does not return the sentiment. He goads her, though, into befriending him, and then into dating him, until … let’s just say that there’s a complication. Vonnie’s heart belongs to someone else.
Café Society is a slight little love story, its central triangle made slightly more complicated by stories of the mob—Bobby’s brother (Corey Stoll, oozing charm) is a New York gangster—and by many, many not-terribly-funny jokes about being Jewish (“when a Jew cooks something,” Bobby says, solemnly, “it’s always overcooked, because they want to kill all the germs”). The film’s stars, as will so often be the case with an Allen film, give game performances (especially, this time around, Blake Lively, who plays another love interest for Bobby and makes the most of a sorely underwritten role). And everyone—as will so often be another case with an Allen film—seems, you know, really happy to be there.
But for all its beauty and its star power, the movie never elevates to anything beyond a kind of storyboard sketch. There’s love, and loss, and betrayal, and ego, and death ... yet none of these epic themes ever leap from the screen as full or human or even interesting. Everything here is beautiful and meaningless. Perhaps that is Allen’s point—his films have long been interested in existentialism and, lately, nihilism—but nothing in Café Society suggests anything resembling a message or a conclusion or, indeed, an artist who has much to say beyond (as Phil observes at one point): “In matters of the heart, people do foolish things.”
They do. Yes. And while that’s a truism that has animated the output of artists from Shakespeare to Austen to Kanye, “matters of the heart” have never, really, been Allen’s strong suit. True, his films feature characters (men, mostly) doing foolish things because of love (dating inappropriate women, largely). As my colleague Sophie Gilbert pointed out last year:
In 1996, at the age of 61, he successfully wooed the 29-year-old Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You, the year after he had an affair with Mira Sorvino’s 20-something prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. In 1979’s Manhattan, Allen’s 40-something character, Isaac, dates a 17-year-old schoolgirl played by Mariel Hemingway (the film is believed to be based on Allen’s real-life experiences dating 16-year-old Stacey Nelkin, whom he met on the set of Annie Hall and dated while she was attending Stuyvesant High School).
But the subtle give-and-take that guides deep human connection? The stuff that so often makes for good rom-coms, and for good literature? Allen dabbles in it, certainly, but he tends to return, like a tuft-headed boomerang, to his comfort zones: allegory. Slapstick. Sketch. Even Annie Hall, perhaps Allen’s best film and certainly the one that catapulted him to fame, had to evolve into the rom-com that it would become. Allen’s original vision for the film, his aforementioned documentary points out, was that it would focus on Alvy, with Annie as a more minor character; it was only in editing, and because of Diane Keaton’s manic charisma, that the film’s iconic rom-com structure emerged.
The generous reading of Allen’s work is that he has suffered from the cruel paradox that will plague so many visionaries, in the end: His innovations have become so normalized that they now whiff of cliché. Allen certainly was a visionary, many times over—and also, as both a cause and effect of that, a product of his times. He rose to fame around the same years, in the United States, that psychotherapy was becoming a standard mode of dealing with the world (one study found an eightfold rise in the number of psychologists who focused on mental health between 1950 and 1975); he channeled that shift, becoming a de facto mascot of the nation’s newfound awareness of its own mental impulses. “For God’s sake, Alvy,” exclaims a girl in Annie Hall, “even Freud speaks of a latency period!” This is a joke that could not have landed, with a wide audience, before the “me generation” came of age.
While Allen may not be, strictly, a member of that generation, his films embraced its aesthetics—and its ethics. If the ’70s were indeed awash, as has so often been argued, in a culture of narcissism, then Allen was the bard of that culture. And that was, in large part, a very good thing. It led to films—Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo—that dared to assume what so many movies today take for granted: that individual introspection is a crucial element of culture. That awkwardness, individual egos colliding and tripping each other up, is a defining fact of human life. That the psychic alchemy that takes place as a person sits, silently, in a movie house as film crackles and rolls means that movies can legitimately tackle, and maybe even answer, some of life’s Biggest Questions. What does it all mean? Who, or what, is it all for? Why this, and why not that, and just why, why, why?
The later period of Allen’s career, though, saw a darker twist to those impulses. It saw Allen moving away from the existential questions and toward more ethical ones. To what extent, Allen began wondering, audibly, can the mandates of morality really apply to the messiness of human life? To what extent are cheating—and betrayal—and murder—and abuse—wrong? To what extent must they be punished? To what extent can they be justified? If there’s a through line to Allen’s recent work, it is a deep—almost morbid—curiosity about what, precisely, a person can get away with.
Well. “Another bad movie” is one more thing Woody Allen has gotten away with. Café Society comes in the wake of Irrational Man and Magic in the Moonlight—similarly self-indulgent, similarly trivial. One of the biggest problems afflicting Allen’s latest picture is the simple fact that Bobby, as a stand-in for the film’s creator—Allen narrates the movie, an unnecessary self-injection that will come as a surprise to precisely nobody—is distinctly unappealing both as a protagonist and as a person. He is blithely self-absorbed; he is smarmy; he is manipulative. Allen assumes, it seems, that Bobby’s centrality to the film’s story means that he should, therefore, get what he wants—be it a job or a beautiful woman. He conflates “star” and “hero,” revealingly. Bobby wants, but more importantly Bobby deserves; and, for Allen, those two things are indistinguishable.
They have to be: Bobby pursues Vonnie so aggressively that her giving in to him reads not as a triumph of love, but rather as, well, what it is: an acquiescence. Her concession to Bobby’s will is never questioned or complicated. And there are the workings of Allen’s ethical cosmology laid bare. Bobby has to be entitled to what he wants, even when that thing is another human; otherwise, Café Society’s already tenuous moral universe will succumb to the forces of its own smug entropy.
These are attitudes that—particularly given his daughter’s allegations against Allen—are uncomfortable for obvious reasons. But they also suggest the less generous reading of Allen’s career: that the ground beneath him has shifted, and that he has proven either unwilling or unable to move along with it. The bard of narcissism is out of date.
The current age is defined, to be sure, by its own brand of self-inspection: the social media update, the selfie, the general sense that, whatever the orthography may have to say about it, there is totally an “I” in “team.” And yet it is also defined by oppositional forces: by a new sense, enabled by the internet and social media and hashtags and all the new ways that exist to expose human experience, of community. People who used to be invisible to the culture at large are, via the workings of the digital world, suddenly less so; people who used to be unheard are now raising their voices. Allen’s work has emphasized the primacy of the individual, often at the expense of the other individuals who may be, sometimes inconveniently, in the picture; that is another way that it scans, in the current world, as distinctly retrograde. Café Society is Allen’s first digital film; that, though, its Amazon backing notwithstanding, is the only way the film nods, even faintly, to the future.
It’s perhaps fitting, then, that nearly every scene of the movie is washed—via its cinematographer, the great Vittorio Storaro—in the lovely side-light of the golden hour. It’s a choice, at once subtle and pervasive, that gives the film’s proceedings, whatever the time of day, whether characters are outside or in, the effect of perpetual sunset. And it’s hard, given Allen’s age, not to read that as a metaphor: the creator, in his twilight years. A portrait of the artist a no-longer-young man. Allen, early in his career, was obsessed with The Seventh Seal, Bergman’s masterpiece of cinematic existentialism; perhaps he has come to see himself, in his own way, as someone who is working to cheat death. Perhaps the frenzied pace of Allen’s recent cinematic output—a movie a year, pretty much—is evidence of the artist trying, in the only way he knows how, to stay alive. Running, desperately, but vainly: It would make sense. The problem is that running, like most other things in life, is particularly difficult to do if the runner is constantly—stubbornly—looking backward.