Sometimes lately I wish Woody Allen would just go away. And other times I can’t imagine the world without him.
Every new film from him forces audiences to confront again their feelings about Allen as both artist and person, and to reexamine the evolution of those responses over time. He has gone from being the prototypical cool nerd and paragon of urbane, intellectual wit to a troublesome and, for some, villainous figure. Wrestling with all of that is an ongoing, uncomfortable process, made all the more tortured by Allen’s movie-a-year schedule and his restless creative impulses. He never gives us a break.
And yet his latest, “Café Society,” a comedy with dramatic underpinnings, reveals that as much as his films can seem blithely self-same, there are shadings and distinctions that signal more dynamic shifts in his thinking. Always marked by a neurotic pessimism, his recent films have taken a darker, violent turn, verging on nihilism. His work has become a thorny conversation with himself, his past, his problems and his audience. Perhaps it always was.
“Café Society,” a wistful story of romantic yearning set in New York and Hollywood in the 1930s, centers on a love triangle among Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell, with supporting performances by Jeannie Berlin, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider and Corey Stoll. Though Allen does not appear onscreen, he voices an ongoing narration, a not-so-subtle reminder as to who is the real guiding hand of the goings-on.
One of the new movie’s main themes seems to be that you can’t outrun your past and that things have a way of coming back around, whether people or crimes or feelings long compartmentalized.
Indeed, the specter of allegations that Allen had sexually molested his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992 roared back around the time of his piercing 2013 drama “Blue Jasmine” when she publicly spoke out. And a recent essay by Allen’s estranged son Ronan Farrow, timed to the Cannes Film Festival premiere of “Café Society,” questioned journalists for not continuing to ask “hard questions” of his father.
Changing dynamics between men and women, evolving attitudes toward survivors of sexual assault and an accelerated media landscape have meant that these renewed allegations have played out differently than they did in the ’90s. This time, as in Allen’s latest movie, the past may not be so easy to leave behind.
So where does that leave the rest of us as moviegoers? Would this all be made easier if Allen would just hit pause?
Personally, I’ve always read Allen’s work ethic as an attempt to put his head down and push past any and all controversy, while I also wonder whether he now feels that slowing down would be a tacit acknowledgement that his presence had become so troubling. But rather than give his audiences a moment to process their complicated, conflicting feelings about the distinctions between life and art, the life of the artist and the work created, he defiantly insists on remaining visible.
Because of his prolific output, there is often an unfiltered quality to Allen’s work, as if it’s an outpouring of his subconscious into the script and onto the screen. So the constant appearance of older men with younger women, the preoccupation with guilt and murder, class anxiety, a sense of existential futility, could all be read as signs that he genuinely can’t help himself. These truly are the things most on his mind.
Allen maintains that he does not read any press about himself, good or bad, none of the reviews or interviews or think pieces. I don’t know that I entirely buy that line, as he frequently seems to be addressing what is being said about him through his work. It may seem odd to invoke Beyoncé to discuss Woody Allen, but he often, it seems to me, will “twirl on them haters.”
Last year’s “Irrational Man” felt acutely aware of Allen’s critics, as a college professor engaged in an affair with a young student and attempted to get away with the murder of a family court judge. In “Café Society” a man leaves his wife of 25 years to take up with a 25-year-old woman. (And then is seen staying with her for a number of years, longer than some passing fling.)
Aside from that uncomfortably precise age differential, one of the more troubling elements in “Café Society” is that as part of a gangster subplot, a number of violent murders are shown that have little precedent in Allen’s work. A garish moment in which a man is shot while in a barber’s chair, blood staining the towel wrapped around his head, is especially jarring. A comic callback is made of bodies being disposed of under freshly laid slabs of cement.
Though there is (spoiler alert) comeuppance in “Café Society,” the movie’s flip attitude toward these deaths is especially odd because Allen has so frequently turned to the notion of murder, and getting away with it, as the most elemental moral dilemma. In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point,” “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Irrational Man” he has returned again and again to whether a person can commit the ultimate crime and continue living a normal life.
He has depicted murder in a comedic way before – “Manhattan Murder Mystery” comes immediately to mind – but the throwaway lightness with which he treats the subject here seems to further signal the ongoing darkening of his worldview. What’s a little death among family?
The romantic machinations and manipulations of Jesse Eisenberg’s character in “Café Society” might at a different time have seemed charming and the product of a plucky persistence. Today they read with an edge of obliviousness and selfish desperation. Likewise Carell’s Hollywood power broker wavers between an abrasive, earnest rawness and a steely calculation.
If Woody Allen were to stop making movies what, really, would be lost? The free-flowing precision of “Annie Hall,” the bittersweet reveries of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the angry agitation of “Husbands and Wives” and the sun-kissed psychopathology of “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” would all still exist. If he were to stop working it wouldn’t even much fix his legacy in place, as the regard for certain films is already in flux.
“Manhattan,” long considered one of his greatest achievements, has of late seemed just a morass of cringing and bad vibes, not only for a fortysomething Allen romantically pursuing an underage high school girl but also for its general tone of smug, posturing self-regard. At the same time, an unassuming film like “Broadway Danny Rose” has an emergent tenderness and humanity that was once easy to overlook.
With “Café Society,” Allen again signals his audience about what’s on his mind and that he knows what they think about him. He occupies a distinctly complicated, tangled position and now always will, regardless of whether the 80-year-old filmmaker stops working or not. These are not signs of an autumnal reconciliation of life’s contradictions, but rather something intense and disturbing.
Woody Allen does not make it easy to be a fan of Woody Allen. But as in his “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” where an actor steps out of a movie and into the real world only to cause chaos and a struggle to get him to return onscreen, any ongoing doubts and recriminations about Allen will not be easily put back.
Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus