LOS ANGELES, May 11, (AP): Going into a new Woody Allen film, there’s always the hope that it’s going to be major, like “Blue Jasmine,” and not one of his trifles, like the Allen movies that have opened the Cannes Film Festival in recent years (“Hollywood Ending,” “Midnight in Paris”). At this point, however, his track record vastly favors the probability that it’s going to be a trifle, at which point the question then becomes: Will it be one of his good ones — that is, one of those Allen fables that really sings? “Cafe Society,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a sweetly naive Bronx nebbish who journeys to Hollywood in the 1930s to seek his fortune, has been made with all the verve and high-style panache and star magnetism of a small-scale Allen gem. Yet the movie, watchable as it is, never quite overcomes the sense that it’s a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie. With intermittent romantic sparks struck between Eisenberg and his co-star, a poised and glowing Kristen Stewart, “Cafe Society” is likely to draw a larger swath of the Allen audience than his last two, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man.” But there may be a limit to its success, since it’s one of those Allen films that keeps talking about passion instead of actually making the audience feel it.
Eisenberg, looking handsome in a curly pompadour, is the latest in a long line of actors who have been given the obvious directive to channel Allen’s onscreen spirit. But he does a more appealing job of it than most, because the Eisenberg mannerisms – the antic verbal dexterity, the slight sputter of people-pleasing insecurity – match up organically with Allen’s own. He plays Bobby Dorfman, who arrives in Hollywood looking to land a job in the office of his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), an agent so powerful that he can’t turn around at a pool party without being badgered about some deal he’s negotiating for Ginger Rogers or William Powell. We suspect — or maybe hope — that Phil is going to be the oily player who lures Bobby into his world of corrupt glamor, but Carell, looking wonderfully tanned and fleshy, plays Phil as a busy, babbly Type A mensch who gives his nephew errands to run and finds the time to introduce him to all the right people.
One of those is Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart), a willowy disarmingly level-headed former ingenue who claims to reject the Hollywood game. She takes Bobby on an impromptu tour of celebrity mansions, where they discuss the larger-than-life quality of movie stardom, which prompts Vonnie to insist: “I think I’d be happier being lifesize.” Stewart makes you touch the reality of that line. She sheds some of her own halting mannerisms to play a woman of warmth who, with a twinkle, holds her ardor close to the vest, and this mood of quiet confidence fits the actress beautifully. It’s that quality that attracts the guileless Bobby, and it isn’t long before puppy love ensues.
There’s a twist, of course: Vonnie already has a boyfriend — and that lover, it’s revealed early on, is none other than Uncle Phil, who has promised to abandon his wife and marry Vonnie. There’s nothing too original about this love-triangle dilemma, especially in a Woody Allen film, where it directly mirrors so many of the setups in his earlier work, notably the adulterous tangle of “Manhattan.” The question is: Where will he take it this time? And the answer turns out to be: not somewhere very interesting. Carell’s Phil, even though he’s betraying his wife, is portrayed as such a victim of his own romantic devotion that it’s hard to root against him — and Vonnie, in fact, insists that she loves both men.
There’s a hint of novelty in the way that this plays out against a lusciously visualized period-Tinseltown backdrop. And, indeed, Vittorio Storaro’s scrumptious, dark-toned cinematography is so breathtaking that it almost seems to be telling a story of its own. Storaro, that maestro of color and shadow, turns the wood-paneled offices and restaurants into an Art Deco daydream, and when Bobby and Vonnie are seated in Bobby’s motel room and the electricity goes out, the sudden illumination-by-candlelight looks like something out of “Barry Lyndon.” Every shot in “Cafe Society” glows with a kind of lustrous classicism. Yet all of this just makes you wish that Allen had brought the Old Hollywood setting to life with a richer sense of drama and play, the way the Coen brothers did in “Hail, Caesar!”
If you’re wondering what the title means, “Cafe Society” refers to the high life back in New York City, where Bobby returns after being spurned by Vonnie. He goes to work in the nightclub owned by his cliche gangster of a brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), and he supposedly finds his place among the swells, but it’s hard to escape the slightly disappointing sense that the movie is starting all over again. And this time, more than ever, it’s telling rather than showing. Allen has chosen to narrate the film himself, which seems like a harmless gambit, but his voice, after a while, begins to sound almost syrupy with didactic melancholy, and we can’t help but notice that a lot of the stuff he’s telling us — Bobby gets to know politicians and gangsters! He becomes a man of the world! — should, in fact, have been the very substance of the movie’s plot. Eisenberg’s likable performance never gets a chance to develop. He remains that same sweet kid, pining away. By the end, that seems to be the point: that a great many people walk around carrying the ghosts of love – a dream of what might have been. But that’s a message we need to feel in our hearts, rather than our heads, if it’s going to haunt us. Mostly, “Cafe Society” leaves you dreaming of the movie it might have been had Woody Allen made it by doing what he’s done in his best work: nudging himself out of his comfort zone.
LOS ANGELES: When it comes to fame, Woody Allen believes that celebrities should be grateful for the doors that it opens. “There are great upsides to it and great downsides to it,” Allen said at the opening press conference of the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday afternoon. “My opinion after years in the spotlight is that the perks far outweigh the downsides. Celebrities often kvetch about the lack of privacy and being bothered by the paparazzi, and these are not life-threatening problems. They get enormous advantages as they go through life.”
“If this was years ago, I would have played this part in the movie that Jesse is playing,” Allen said of the young man who arrives to Hollywood and falls in love with an ordinary secretary (Stewart). “I would have played it much more narrow myself, because I’m a comedian — not an actor. I would have given it one dimension. Jesse is a fine actor and gave it much more complexity.”
Eisenberg said that his performance wasn’t an impersonation. “There was no emphasis from me to enact some kind of impression,” he said. The “Social Network” star revealed that when he was 16, he wrote a script about Woody Allen. “It got sent to agents who thought it was funny,” he said. “It got sent to his lawyers who didn’t think it was funny. They sent me cease and desist letters.”
“Cafe Society” is at its heart a love story about the secretary torn between two men. “I have always thought of myself as a romantic,” Allen said. “This is not necessarily shared by the women in my life.” He said that his ex-girlfriends would call him a “romantic fool.” “They think I romanticize New York City, that I romanticize the past, that I romanticize love relationships and I probably do. It probably is foolish.”
Allen discovered Stewart from 2009’s “Adventureland,” and had her audition for the lead role in “Cafe Society” — the first time she’s done that since “Twilight.” Stewart admitted that she was initially intimidated to star in a lighthearted comedy. “At first, I thought I would have to learn every line perfectly,” Stewart said. “I felt as though I needed to prepare. I’m really bad at that. Luckily, once we started going, the tonal quality happens intrinsically.”
Allen explained why his movie wasn’t playing in-competition at Cannes. “I don’t believe in competition for artistic things,” he said. “Look, a jury will award a film — they’ll call it the best film. I’ll find it the most boring film. Someone else finds my films boring. Someone else loves it. It’s all very subjective.” The director also talked about shooting a movie with digital cameras for the first time. “To me, it was exactly the same,” he said. “It’s the identical thing. Instead of celluloid, you’re working digitally.”
A journalist asked if Allen would ever reverse the conceits of many of his films and tell the story of a young man falling in love with an older woman. “I wouldn’t hesitate to do that if I had a good idea for a story,” Allen said. “It’s not a commonly seen thing. I don’t have a lot of experience to draw on for material.” But then he contradicted himself, saying: “When I was 30 years old, I had a big crush on a 50-year-old woman who was great looking and powerful, but she was married and wouldn’t go near me with a 10-foot-pole.”