Cafe Society

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Woody Allen has always had a particularly deft touch directing women.

Over the course of his career, an astounding twelve actresses have been nominated for thirteen Oscars for appearing in Woody Allen films, and six times they have walked away as winners. Diane Keaton started the streak at the 1978 Academy Awards, where she won Best Actress for Annie Hall. The next year, Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—for Interiors; and Mariel Hemingway was nominated the following year for her supporting turn in Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan. At the 1987 Oscars, Dianne Wiest won Best Supporting Actress for Hannah and Her Sisters; and Judy Davis gave a volcanic performance, earning a Supporting Actress nomination, in 1992’s Husbands and Wives. Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly both garnered nominations for Supporting Actress, with Wiest earning her second win, for Bullets Over Broadway in 1995. Mira Sorvino took home an improbable Supporting Actress Oscar the next year for Mighty Aphrodite. Samantha Morton earned a Supporting Actress nomination for 1999’s Sweet and Low Down. Penelope Cruz smoldered and erupted her way to a Supporting Actress win in 2009 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And then Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—with Blanchett the runaway winner for 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

There won’t be any Oscar nominations for Allen’s latest film, Café Society, but once again it is the women who make the film worthwhile, mostly notably Kristen Stewart, who here crackles with intelligence, warmth, and charisma.

Café Society is set in the Hollywood and New York of the 1930’s, a bygone era of glamor, romance, and excitement that has been an obsession of Allen’s for decades. Bobby, a naïve young Bronx boy (Jesse Eisenberg), moves to the West Coast and falls in love with the secretary (Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie) of his uncle, a mogul-ish agent to the stars played by Steve Carell. The relationship gets complicated when Bobby discovers that he is the short leg in an isosceles love triangle, and—heart broken—he packs up and moves back to Manhattan to run a ritzy nightclub with his gangster brother (Corey Stoll).

In recent years, Allen’s movies have taken on the aspect of wistful novellas, often with omniscient, detached narrators doing the heavy lifting not only in terms of moving the plot forward but even in expressing and explaining the emotional state of his characters. In some instances—Vicky Cristina Barcelona and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger—the device works to varying degrees. In others, like Café Society, it does not. Here, Allen’s voice over recitation of the plot—voiced by Allen himself—strips all the urgency out of the conflicts and interactions of the characters, literally telling us the story while relegating the scenes that the actors are left to play as random vignettes that merely serve to illustrate or punctuate his narration.

But while that narrative device slows and undermines the story, it is Jesse Eisenberg’s limp, tedious performance that ultimately deadens the proceedings entirely.

Eisenberg has given some interesting, effective performances in his career, including his Academy Award nominated turn in The Social Network, but after a solid effort last year in the underrated The End of the Tour, he is having a bad, bad 2016. From his desperately embarrassing Lex Luthor in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the why-in-God’s-name-did-it-get-a-sequel Now You See Me 2, Eisenberg’s effort in Café Society makes it a trifecta of futility.

One common thread that weaves its way through Eisenberg’s 2016 travails is simply that the actor doesn’t fit the role. Eisenberg made his bones playing nerdy, awkward kids in movies like The Squid and the Whale, Roger Dodger, and Adventureland, and so turning in a career-best performance as those characters grown-up and embittered, as he did in The Social Network, made perfect sense. In Café Society, however, while Eisenberg fits as the shy, naïve Bronx kid who opens the story, he is not nearly up to the task of transforming into the confident, charismatic success that he is supposed to be by the end of the film. And willful suspension of disbelief may be the stock-and-trade of the Hollywood dream factory, but asking us to buy that Eisenberg can make both Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively fall in love with him over the course 96 minutes is simply a bridge too far.

Which brings us back to Stewart.

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For a young actress, Stewart has had an awfully prolific career so far, including ten films just since 2014 alone. All that experience has helped her tap and tame her natural, raw talent, and the magnetic charm and youthful maturity she puts on display in Café Society suggests an actress ready to come into her own.

While Stewart steals the show as the irresistible Vonnie, Parker Posey in a supporting role and Blake Lively in what is essentially an extended cameo both shine, as well. Posey, especially, gives more personality to what is basically just the sketch outline of a human being than most actors do to fully fleshed out characters, proving once again that one of Allen’s greatest assets as a director is his ability to take a great actress, point her in the right direction, and then just get out of her way.

As for Allen himself, his central preoccupations have changed little over the years, and Café Society reflects his passion for Hollywood of yesteryear, his love of all things New York, and his infatuation with gangsters and other streetwise character who—as he rhapsodized in Manhattan—“know all the angles”. And, of course, even in a trifling work like Café Society, Allen cannot help but ponder the core philosophical quandaries that he returns to time and time and time again in his oeuvre.

As one character opines in Café Society: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. But…the examined one is no bargain.”

Irrational Man: Philosophy & Justice

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Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is akin to watching a great athlete in the twilight of his career.

Every now and then you get to see a vintage performance, a reminder of the self-assured mastery and skill that once made this guy the greatest in the world. Every now and then he’ll go long stretches where he’s on top of his game and looking like the champion of old—filling up the stat sheet and wowing you with his ability to stay with the other players—only to falter on a few key shots or run out of gas at the end. And every now and then he throws up a complete brick, nearly missing the mark entirely and leaving you shaking your head and hoping he has what it takes to make on last run at a championship.

Unfortunately, despite a solid effort by his actors and some interesting moments here and there, Allen’s latest annual offering, Irrational Man, is more brick than anything else. It looks good coming off his fingertips, arcs encouragingly toward the basket, but ultimately clanks awkwardly off the rim and way, way out of bounds.

The Irrational Man at the core of the movie is Abe Lucas, a brilliant but troubled philosophy professor just beginning a new job at Braylin College, a fictional school in the northeast where the undergrads all talk like 40-year-old liberal elites and the co-eds have never heard of “Russian Roulette”. We know that Abe is brilliant but troubled because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that he is brilliant but troubled. Abe, floundering in the throes of a serious existential crisis, strikes up a friendship with one of his top students, Jill, who quickly falls for him. We know that she has fallen for him because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that she has fallen for him.

In case you’re not getting it on your own and need me to explain it to you: the worst flaw in Irrational Man is that Allen’s script constantly assumes that the audience just isn’t getting it and needs everything explained to them, over and over and over again. Jill has the same conversation with her boyfriend about her relationship with Abe at least three times. When the film pivots suddenly in its second half and there is a crime to be solved, one character’s theory is repeated no less than four times by various characters. And on and on. The repetition becomes so striking that it begins to appear almost strategic, but it ultimately just derails the movie’s momentum and leaves the viewer somewhat bored in slogging through the same material over and over again.

During one of their pseudo-dates, Abe and Jill find themselves at a diner, where they overhear a stranger’s heartbreaking story about how she is about to lose her children in a divorce. In that moment, Abe makes a life-altering decision, which propels Irrational Man in an unexpected–though more interesting–direction and gives meaning and purpose to his life.

Suddenly the cloud over Abe lifts. He begins to enjoy life again. He writes, he lusts, and he loves.

“What happened to the philosophy professor?” marvels a fellow faculty member with whom Abe is having an affair. “Christ, you were like a caveman!”

It’s a compliment.

From there, Irrational Man actually starts to pick up some steam. Abe sets his course, plots and plans, and acts—he says—for the first time in his life.

Woody Allen has written some beautiful dialogue in his career, brought to life some lively characters, and laced his screenplays with delicate irony, razor-sharp wit, and even instances of true suspense. Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Match Point are just three illustrations of what has evolved into a monumental canon of excellent films that succeed in one or more of those areas.

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But where Irrational Man actually succeeds has little to do with Allen’s direct contribution, but rather comes from the entirely game performances of the three leads: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in the two top roles, and Parker Posey as Abe’s colleague and lover, Rita. All three transcend the material and develop interesting, compelling characters that live and breathe and manage to keep us interested despite it all. Stone and Posey, in particular, do far more with their roles than one might expect, given what they have to work with. To a large extent, they are drawn as caricatures—as is Abe, for that matter—but their interpretation of their dialogue and ability to fill the empty spaces with empathy and real emotion adds blood and life to the film.

Phoenix keeps pace with the ladies, for the most part, but he suffers from the fact that he plays a character that never lives up to its own billing. Jill and Rita and other minor characters rhapsodize over Abe’s brilliance, but in the end we never really see it. His philosophical declarations are of the Philosophy for Dummies variety, and his fetishizing of joylessness rises to the level of your average college sophomore. As a result, it just becomes too hard to believe Phoenix’s performance because his character rings so hollow.

Despite it all, Irrational Man does offer the occasional nugget of satisfaction here and there, and its climatic moment is surprisingly intense and effective. Rarely has Allen’s presentation of violence been so raw and sudden, and punctuating a film that has seemed so lazy to that point with such a startling moment only amplifies its power.

In Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Allen offered competing positions on whether crime must be punished. And though Allen never resolves the philosophical issues he raises in Irrational Man, he does definitively break the tie on the question of whether or not justice must be served.

Woody and the Women

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“Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

IndieWIRE’s Ryan Lattanzio asks that question in a blog post this week titled “The 9 Women You Meet in Woody Allen Movies”, an article tied to Allen’s upcoming 2015 release, Irrational Man.

Leading with Irrational Man’s Emma Stone, Lattanzio writes:

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Lattanzio then goes on to a rather reductive take on the 9 types of women that he says populate Woody Allen’s film oeuvre.

Honestly, it would seem that if you take any filmmaker and look at his or her characters—male or female—and try to archetype them, you might be hard-pressed to come up with nine distinct types! Are Martin Scorsese’s antiheroes so different from one film to the next? Or how about Wes Anderson’s quirky ensembles? Or Sophia Coppola? I mean, how different, really, was Bill Murray’s aging burnt-out movie star in Lost in Translation from Stephen Dorff’s young burnt-out movie start in Somewhere?

When it comes to Woody Allen, though, it has always been fashionable (if not incredibly lazy) to ask, “Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?”

If he does, then it is a problem that almost every actress in Hollywood over the past forty years has wanted to be a part of. Any why not? Perhaps actresses are so eager to work with Allen because of the phenomenal success women have historically had starring in his films.

Despite Allen’s apparently horrible failings at writing female characters, an astounding 12 actresses have been nominated for 13 Oscars for appearing in Woody Allen films, and 6 times they have walked away as winners.

A quick summary:

Diane Keaton was nominated for and won Best Actress for Annie Hall in 1977.

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Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page were BOTH nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—for 1978’s Interiors.

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Mariel Hemingway was nominated for her supporting turn in Allen’s masterpiece, Manhattan, in 1978.

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Dianne Wiest was nominated for and won Best Supporting Actress in 1986 for Hannah and Her Sisters. (No good females roles in that one, right?)

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Judy Davis gave a volcanic performance, earning a Supporting Actress nomination, for 1992’s Husbands and Wives.

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Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly both earned nominations for Supporting Actress, with Wiest claiming her second Allen Oscar win, for Bullets Over Broadway in 1994.

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Mira Sorvino earned an improbable Supporting Actress win for 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite.

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Samantha Morton earned a Supporting Actress nomination for Sweet and Low Down in 1999.

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Penelope Cruz smoldered and erupted her way to a Supporting Actress win in 2008 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

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Sally Hawkins and Cate Blanchett were both nominated—Supporting Actress and Actress, respectively—with Blanchett the runaway Oscar winner for 2013’s Blue Jasmine.

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Woody Allen writes such weak and obvious female characters that three times multiple actresses have been Oscar-nominated for his films?

And those are just the Oscar winners!

Don’t forget about Diane Keaton’s brilliant turn in Manhattan. Or the phenomenal ensemble work done not only by Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, but also Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and even Maureen O’Sullivan in a small role. Anjelica Houston’s shattered other woman in Crimes and Misdemeanors? Scarlett Johansson’s scintillating seductress in Match Point? Heck, even the minor, mostly-dismissed You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger featured strong, vibrant work from Gemma Jones and Naomi Watts.

To be sure, Allen has worked with some of the best actresses in the business, and the credit for their performances go first and foremost to them. But it is no coincidence that great actresses climb over each other to try to appear in Woody Allen movies, despite the fact that there haven’t exactly been a lot of hits in his filmography since the early ‘80’s.

Clearly, they must see something in his female characters that they want to play, and something in the director that will allow them to do their best work.

Does Woody Allen have a woman problem?

Only in that even in churning out a movie every single year, there still aren’t enough parts for all the actresses who want to play them.