WASHINGTON, August 21, 2016 – It’s very difficult to separate Woody Allen’s life from his work, since both are so completely intertwined. Since Allen first became a well-known entertainment figure in the late 1960s, the way information on entertainment figures is presented and processed has changed fairly dramatically.
Once upon a time, an entertainment or media personality could keep part of his or her life private, away from prying eyes. Being a public figure now means that most public personalities are fair game and on full display for the public, courtesy of the Internet’s prying, all-seeing eyes. There’s nowhere to hide. This fairly recent phenomenon, in turn, colors how movies like Allen’s latest affair, “Café Society,” are perceived in a critical light.
The early Woody Allen
Early in Allen’s career as a filmmaker—and one who starred in his own films—it wasn’t hard to mistake the various characters he was playing as variations of himself. Up to that point, he’d become known as a relatively successful comedy writer and nervously successful stand-up comic. In his films, it was generally understood that at the very least, he was playing a caricature of himself.
The most notable examples of this decidedly autobiographical approach appear in his earlier successes, films like “Annie Hall” (1977) and “Manhattan” (1979). Some aspect of Allen’s life and times was the driving force at the core of each of his films over an extraordinarily lengthy time span.
Allen does not strive to create a recognizable world in his films. Rather, he replaces the real world with a Woody Allen world in every film, with the result that there are, even today, very few filmmakers who have made more personal films that Woody Allen.
But actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Biographical these films may be. But there’s also certain detachment in the way in which Allen projects certain aspects of his persona. Looking at his impressive body of work in 2016, we see that these films, on the whole, aren’t so much works of fiction as they are distorted visions of his own peculiar reality.
As Woody Allen evolved into one of the more celebrated auteurs in the world of film in the late 1970s through the 1980s, his films all took place in an aggressively urban, modernist universe, a special place in the world he then inhabited time that constituted his immediate reality.
The later Woody Allen
As Allen moved into the current century, his cinematic output began to take on a more nostalgic vibe, inhabiting various past eras or romanticized versions of European cities that correlated more with a tourist’s eye, something distinctly contrary to the way he filmed his New York-based movies. His filmmaking became less incisive, and his later films were distinguished by their looseness in form and function.
For many years, Allen’s original persona, bound up in often semi-autobiographical films, worked well, attracting a regular audience that eagerly anticipated the release of every Woody Allen film.
But in more recent years, the public perception of Allen’s persona has decidedly shifted. Engaging with Allen in reality or via his film persona became a more divisive experience as some of the formerly hidden secrets of his life surfaced and became public scandals. Notably, the alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter with former partner Mia Farrow—Dylan Farrow–and the painful and very public deconstruction of his still controversial relationship with current wife Soon-Yi have became juicy, ongoing tabloid fare.
Allen’s domestic scandals haunt his more recent films. Yet seemingly oblivious to it all, he continues to crank them out, which further angers his detractors. For better or worse, the formerly private life of this most prolific writer/director and sometime star is now inextricably linked with his movies.
How “Café Society” fits in
“Café Society” is clearly a product of this latter day Allen. While visually attractive on the surface, courtesy of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s excellent work, Allen’s first digital format film almost inadvertently reflects his worst traits.
The movie begins with an old-style voiceover narration by Allen himself, a weird stylistic choice that has surfaced before in his recent films. Presumably, voiceovers like the one in this film are meant to give the film a quasi-literary weight at transitional points in the story.
Here, the device becomes an irritating, self-indulgent short cut meant to quicken the story’s advance, a clear indication that the script is weak. The voiceover narratives are often deployed to explain the personalities and motivations of Allen’s characters, something that in more finally crafted films should be evident from the words and actions of the characters themselves.
In “Café Society, Bobby Dorfmann (Jesse Eisenberg) serves as the Woody Allen surrogate, the character responsible for projecting Allen’s persona and point of view. Serving as the film’s central intelligence, Bobby also gives the audience a window into the old Hollywood studio system and the city of Los Angeles itself, a place to which Allen is attracted but habitually tears down, always favoring his home turf of New York as the superior place to live and work.
Allen has never been able to plumb the subtler depths of Tinseltown. His answer here is to implicitly criticizes that city, its people and the studio system for not living up to his loftier East Coast expectations. A classic, smug New York provincial, Allen knows in advance that nothing can measure up to the idealized version of New York City, so his argument here rings false.
Ultimately, it’s romance that lies at the heart of Woody Allen’s films. Yet his more recent films like “Café Society” have promoted a shallow, narcissistic viewpoint in this regard. In real life, as most people know, true love is a moving target of mutually complex emotions that must either be satisfied, resolved, or both in order for a budding romance to succeed. It’s a duet, not a solo act.
But for a post Mia Farrow Woody Allen hero or surrogate like Bobby, love is a matter of achieving egotistical satisfaction. When Bobby deigns to venture into the mindscape of his intended female conquests, his overriding worry is that they don’t understand him and his neuroses. Though self-inflicted, Bobby’s approach is superficial, in large part because it’s so narcissistic, reflecting Allen’s own real-life actions. Like Allen, that’s because Bobby lives a life that’s all about him.
The evidence for this is front and center in “Café Society” as Bobby pursues Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the young woman with whom he instantly falls in love the moment he arrives in Hollywood.
But poor, pitiful Bobby soon lets his true love get away in a relatively creepy way that reminds the audience of his own dodgy biography. Bobby’s married, middle-aged Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) has been secretly having an affair with the much-younger Vonnie, a fact she disguises from Bobby.
But what’s really problematic about the uncle’s and his nephew’s courtship of the same woman is the overriding fact that it’s still all about them, as each narcissist seeks victory over the other. The young woman involved is a secondary concern.
Worse, we fail to gain insights into Vonnie’s character since she serves as a mere plot complication for the two men she’s involved with. While she briefly discusses her ambitions at one point, they are quickly dismissed.
What’s even more troubling is that the way she’s perceived by both men seems decidedly juvenile. Every expression of love that comes from this weird pair of suitors is almost instantly directed inward by whomever is professing to love her. In this self-centered male universe, getting a woman into bed is just another way to keep score.
Most adults will recognize that this level of self-absorption in matters of love borders on the emotionally abusive. Disturbingly, it’s a character trait that shows up time and again in Allen’s films.
Bobby continually attempts to re-insert Vonnie into his life even after he’s flamed out in Hollywood, met and married the beautiful Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) in New York and launched a new and successful show biz career as a nightclub owner, partnering with his shady brother Ben (Corey Stoll).
Rich, famous and happily married—on the surface at least—Bobby concludes the story arc with his narcissism intact, staring into the distance and longing for Vonnie as another New Year arrives. In a film that cries out for reflection and introspection, neither Bobby nor Woody can rise to the occasion.
We’re left with the sinking feeling that this is exactly how Allen views romantic relationships, given how solipsistic his public statements about his wife, his previous romantic relationships, or his “indiscretions” always seem to be.
The finest films tend to distinguish the artist from the art. Yet over four decades and dozens of films, Woody Allen still finds this impossible to do because his films all come from such a personal place. For better or for worse Allen’s heart is in every one of his films. But it’s his heart and no one else’s, and his self-centered art reflects the kind of man he really is. Sadly, after all these years, it’s still all about him.