Bright Lights Film Journal

On Café Society and Woody Allen – Last seen in search of lost innocence, and rich wood paneling!

Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby

Art doesn’t have to be autobiographical, does it? Woody can write about the kid he wasn’t as well as the kid he was, can’t he?

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I haven’t read USA Today since, well, since never, but if I had I’m sure I would have seen an article headed “We Like Wood” because we do.

I first noticed America’s wood fetish while watching one of my favorite TV shows, Monk, in which I noticed a common theme – no matter what the crime, the crime scene always featured lots and lots of rich, highly polished natural wood. Hardwood floors were de rigueur, of course, and usually dark rather than maple or beech, along with extravagant baseboard and crown moldings, elegant door casings and doors, carved ceilings and wainscot paneling, all done in mahogany, cherry, or black walnut. You could practically smell the beeswax.

Café Society, Woody Allen’s latest tragicomedy, has more than a touch of America’s wood fetish, but it has stronger touches of Woody Allen’s own fetishes, which have largely to do with growing up Jewish and ordinary in the forties while fantasizing about that mysterious, goyish, glamorous world of Broadway and Hollywood make-believe where almost all your dreams can come true, except for the ones you really wanted.

I’m not really an expert on Woody’s œuvre, but I can offer it as my unkind opinion that they improved when he stopped appearing in them. Woody has always been unprepossessing, but back in the nineties the sight of old, wrinkled Woody desperately pawing actresses twenty years his junior had definitely lost its charm. Jesse Eisenberg, who previously appeared in Woody’s To Rome with Love (2012), is sufficiently “Jewish” to have played Mark Zuckerberg1 while also being tall, young, and handsome enough to serve Woody as an alter ego, which he does, because this film is virtually a remake of Annie Hall. In fact, it’s easy to believe that many of the scenes were originally written, or at least conceived, for that film.

The film works as a very standard bildungsroman. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a nice Jewish boy aspiring to greater things – greater things, that is, than being a nice Jewish boy. The film opens, not in New York but in thirties Hollywood, sun-drenched and opulent. We don’t see the stars themselves but their agents, swaggering Jewish tough guys, including Bobby’s Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), machers in bespoke tropical suits, chewing their cigars poolside and listening patiently to each other’s endless name-dropping, boasting, one-upmanship, and claims of preternatural insight – “Everyone said Mickey Rooney was washed up. I told Leo ‘put that kid with the other kid – Judy Garland. They’ll go off like a rocket.’ Now every time a new Andy Hardy opens Leo sends me a case of ’28 Krug.”

Steve Carell as Phil Stern

Just in case we’re stupid, Woody, desperate to keep himself in the picture and sounding very much like the 3,000-year-old man, tells us on the voice-over what we’re watching, as if he forgot to include the story in the dialogue he wrote.

The picture Woody gives us of thirties Hollywood looks like it was cribbed from a fan’s magazine – nothing but mansions and limousines, the finest everything, very much the Hollywood of Warren Beatty’s Bugsy (1991) and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), all three men wanting to believe the myth that they know isn’t true.

Jewish hell – Mama, Papa, and Ben

And Bobby wants a part of it all. Again, in case we’re stupid, Bobby’s Mama Rose (Jeannie Berlin) makes a phone call to brother Phil and fills us in that Bobby’s on his way and to give him a helping hand. Rose is calling from, basically, Jewish Hell, at least as Woody (and Bobby) conceive it, sweaty, uncultured Dad sitting around in his underwear, Mom sweating and yelling in the kitchen, the air redolent of gefiltefish and latkes.2 No class! No class!3

Yes, Bobby’s on the run, but as of yet he doesn’t really know how to run. Uncle Phil calls to give some “help,” in the form of the numbers of a few girls Bobby can call. He can call them, you see, because they’re “call girls.”

What follows is a parody (a bad parody) of a bildungsroman. Sweet, naïve Bobby calls, which I’m not quite sure I can see happening, and a girl shows up, looking not at all like a call girl. She tells sweet, naïve Bobby that this is her first time, which is what call girls are always supposed to tell you (I wouldn’t know), but then tops that by telling him she’s a Jew as well! Deflowering a Jewish call girl? Hey, that’s too much Jewish guilt for even a Jew to handle!

The Jewish call girl

This whole scene is so lame it should have been cut, but afterwards the picture improves, though not too quickly. Bobby shows up at Phil’s office. Not too surprisingly, Phil stiffs the poor kid for two weeks, but finally he decides to give him a break. He invites Bobby to one of those fabulous poolside parties where Bobby rather inexplicably charms everybody. More importantly, Phil has his charming secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby around town, which she does, in her immaculate roadster. Beautiful car, beautiful girl! Hey, this Hollywood stuff is pretty nice!

Bobby and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart)

Yes, it is nice, but not perfect because “Vonnie” has this guy, he’s out of town a lot, but she really likes him, so Bobby shouldn’t get his hopes up, though of course he does, squiring her around town in “Doug’s” absence. It’s a bit shallow of Vonnie to string Bobby along like this – quite shallow, in fact, because we learn that “Doug” is really Uncle Phil, who’s promising Vonnie to leave his wife so he can marry her.

When Phil reneges on his promise, Vonnie confides in Bobby, to the extent of telling him that she’s been used by a married man, but now she’s available, sending Bobby’s fantasies into overdrive. We’ll leave Hollywood, because we both hate all the phoniness, the pushiness, the insincerity, the greed. We’ll go to New York and live in the Village, live a sweet, honest Bohemian life. We’ll, I don’t know, we’ll open a gallery, maybe I’ll do publicity for a little theatre – nothing big. Good friends, good wine, good conversation, and art. That’s all we want!

Well, maybe that’s all Bobby wants, but was that ever all Woody wanted? Woody Allen’s Wille zur Macht has always struck me as being about two degrees less intense than Barbra Streisand’s, and the thought that the Woodman ever had his eye on anything less than the top is hard for me to believe.4 Well, again, so what? Art doesn’t have to be autobiographical, does it? Woody can write about the kid he wasn’t as well as the kid he was, can’t he?

Well, sure he can, but he can’t (or doesn’t) resist giving sweet Bobby all that not-so-sweet Woody dreamed of.

To get back to Bobby, the bigger his dreams grow, the deeper he, unwittingly, immerses himself in what becomes a most unsavory triangle. Phil, conveniently desperate for someone to confide in, tells Bobby about this girl he has. He really loves her! In fact, he’s going to leave his wife to marry her! He’ll go crazy if he doesn’t!

Bobby, a bit slow on the uptake, doesn’t guess that all the tormented confessions he’s been hearing might involve two people instead of four, even though Phil and Vonnie have, you know, been seeing each other every day for the past several years. He, seriously unwittingly, stabs himself in the back by telling Vonnie about Uncle Phil’s confession, letting her see Phil’s cards, as it were. After he has sealed his own fate, he discovers what he’s done when he glimpses a framed letter signed by Rudolph Valentino in Phil’s office, a gift Vonnie showed him when it was supposed to be for “Doug.”5

His heart broken, Bobby heads back to New York, where people are honest and open – some of them anyway, but not Bobby’s big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a man of few words but plenty of victims. Bobby’s a gangster, a gangster who, it seems, does very little but murder people. Things eventually get very ugly for the Dorfman family when Bobby’s sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) tells brother Ben that her husband, nerdy intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken), isn’t man enough to handle their obnoxious neighbor, so will Ben please talk to him?

Well, for Ben, actions speak louder than words, particularly when accompanied by a shitload of concrete, so the family has that spoiling Passover – whiny Leonard always moaning about the brotherhood of man representing the superego with murderous Ben representing the id, a rather tedious riff totally tangential to the main event, the quasi-Oedipal triad involving Bobby, Phil, and Veronica, though it allows the whole Dorfman family (except Bobby, who prefers not to express an opinion) to vent at length on moral responsibility once Ben is not only arrested but quickly convicted and then sent just as quickly to the electric chair, capital punishment being the one thing that people didn’t worry about back then.

But that doesn’t happen right away. While Ben is busy murdering people, he somehow gets control of a nightclub, and he (implausibly) decides that doe-eyed Bobby is just the guy to run it for him. Even more implausibly, Bobby takes to it like a duck (or a shark) to water. He’s the dude in the bespoke suit now, presiding over Manhattan’s hottest hot-spot with impeccable, unexceptionable finesse, in a manner very similar to Woody’s idol, Bogie, in the Hollywood film of films, Casablanca. Bobby’s never surprised, never flustered, never in a hurry, though his job means juggling dozens, nay hundreds, of New York’s biggest egos, not a few of them murderous, every night. And he’s even turning a profit!

A 1934 ad for Piper-Heidsieck

Woody, blabbing away on the soundtrack about the New York of his boyhood and his dreams, sounds like Walter Winchell, once the dean of New York’s gossip columnists, going into raptures over all the big shots, hustlers, tough guys, and society dames that come through the fabled club’s doors.6 The glamor, the romance! The champagne! Piper-Heidsieck at one thousand dollars a bottle!7

Yes, everyone loves Bobby, a man of secrets and a keeper of the secrets. Everyone needs a favor, except Bobby himself, and Bobby is always glad to oblige. A whisper in the ear, a squeeze on the shoulder, and the magic is done. Naturally, Bobby eventually acquires a main squeeze, a goddess in platinum silks and satins, another Veronica yet (Blake Lively), and ultimately they get hitched.

If you guessed that the “real” Veronica would intrude on Bobby’s carefully manicured world, you guessed right. She and Phil show up, Vonnie playing the great Hollywood lady, telling long, unfunny anecdotes about showfolk – precisely (of course) the sort of person she told Bobby she didn’t want to be. Well, dames be dames, amirite? They’re all alike. But (of course) neither Bobby nor Woody can let go of the first love fantasy. She had to be different from all the rest! She had to be!

Vonnie and Phil

And so fate helpfully gives them a shove and they get together for an “honest” talk. Yeah, under all the Hollywood phoniness, she’s still “Vonnie,” still the one, still the one he could have been happy with, happy and honest, if she hadn’t, you know, stabbed him in the back with Uncle Phil. So she goes back to Hollywood with her boring, rich husband.

Meanwhile, the Dorfman family has to deal with Ben’s execution, and the near-certain knowledge that they are, to some degree, complicit in the (very) likely murder of Leonard and Evelyn’s bullying neighbor. The Dorfmans, like so many of the characters in Woody’s previous films, struggle with the problem of evil, ultimately causing Rose to shout, first in what is almost surely Hebrew and then in English, “Sometimes silence is an answer!”8

Jeannie Berlin as Mama Rose

Here, we (or at least I) feel that what is being talked about is not “if there is a God, why did he allow our Ben to be a murderer” but “if there is a God, why did he allow Hitler to murder the Jews?” Rose certainly seems to be quoting from something, but a (cursory) Internet search does not, well, does not give me an answer. Job, in what I find to be the most impressive book in the Bible, learns from the voice in the whirlwind that it is not his role to question God, but that is more of an answer than silence.

Eventually, the Dorfmans come to the awkward conclusion that, eventually, even the worst will be, if not accepted or forgiven, at least forgotten. Nothing, whether good or evil, lives on except in memory, and, as memory fades, the deed itself vanishes.

But Woody still isn’t finished. Bobby has another brief reunion with Vonnie in New York. “Look at this city! Look at the way the light reflects off the buildings! Everything is possible here! Dreams come true here! Don’t be afraid!”

But she is afraid and Bobby doesn’t quite have the nerve to push her. Okay, the time has passed. Too much water under the bridge, and all that. Youth is gone, and there is nothing left but memories, memories that fade like the fading light of day.

And so they part. And then on New Year’s Eve, apart from one another, amidst all the banal, mechanical, manufactured frivolity of the smart set, the thousand-dollar bottles of champagne, each is stricken with a vague yet undismissible premonition. Yep. Just like Captain America and Billy, they blew it.

Afterwords

Is it a sin to see a Woody Allen film? I don’t think so. I don’t like trial by public opinion. I’m not interested in sorting through third- and fourth-hand “evidence.” All that I’ve read about Woody’s involvement with Mia Farrow – that during the entirety of their 12-year relationship, he made a point of never spending the night with her, but did make a point of having an affair with her 21-year-old stepdaughter – make me glad that I am not the offspring of the rich and famous.

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Note: Reprinted from longtime BLFJ contributor Alan Vanneman’s indispensable Tumbler site “Literature R Us,” with permission of the author. All images courtesy of Amazon Studios.

  1. In The Social Network, which I (naturally) trashed here. []
  2. Rose calls them “potato pancakes.” Excuse me? Excuse me! I know what latkes are, and I’m an Episcopalian! I’ve even eaten them! []
  3. Robert Redford (yes, Robert Redford) gave us a very similar picture of Jewish striving in Quiz Show (1994), using a script by (presumably) non-Jew (though born in the Bronx) Paul Attanasio, based on the Jewish (finally) Richard Goodwin’s memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. Quiz Show is about the once famous case of Charles Van Doren, who became a media star as a contestant on the network quiz show Twenty One back in the fifties. Van Doren, a clean-cut, old-money WASP won out over sweaty, working-class Jew Herb Stempel the old-fashioned way: NBC gave him the answers. Goodwin, working as a congressional aide investigating the shows, sees in Van Doren everything he wants to be and in Stempel everything he wants to escape. []
  4. Streisand had her own place at age 16 on 48th Street, in the heart of New York’s theater district. Woody, born Allan Konigsberg, legally changed his name at age 17 to Heywood Allen, probably inspired by the famous father and son journalists Heywood and Heywood Hale Broun. He was already earning a good income selling one-liners and “quips” to newspaper columnists. New York in the fifties had seven daily newspapers, selling over five million copies a day on weekdays and close to eight million on Sunday. []
  5. Did it never occur to Vonnie that showing Bobby the gift before she gave it to Phil might not be a good idea? I guess chicks are stupid as well as cold. []
  6. The club is not named Café Society but The Hangover (and later redubbed Le Tropique). In the twenties, “café society” was used to describe the new, “smart” Broadway society that developed after World War I, open, as the pre-war society had not been, to Jews. In 1938 a club actually named Café Society opened, explicitly open, not only to Jews but also to blacks. When Billie Holiday played the club, she finished every set with the “controversial” song “Strange Fruit,” the “strange fruit” being the corpses of lynched blacks. Bobby’s club is not integrated, as I remember, and in fact I can’t remember seeing a black face in the whole film. []
  7. I have never in my life heard anyone say “Piper-Heidsieck,” and Woody’s pronunciation doesn’t sound all that kosher to me, as it were. But what is the “correct” pronunciation of a French champagne with a German name? Today, a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Rare 2002 will run you close to $200 a bottle. If Bobby’s club was charging $1,000 a bottle back in the thirties, no wonder it was making money. []
  8. My ignorance is such that Rose could well be speaking Yiddish, though that would surprise me (a little). She (and Woody) could be quoting from a well-known Yiddish author, but I’m ignorant, and the Internet won’t help me. []