Woody Allen's Cafe Society

Apologies for that wild shriek of joy you may have heard (depending on the thickness of your walls and your proximity to California) in the early morning hours of April 14th. In my defense, I’d been waiting years for the next film from German director Maren Ade (The Forest For The Trees, Everyone Else), and had pretty much given up hope that it might turn up at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, based on various rumors floating around. So when Toni Erdmann was the first film announced for the 2016 Competition—head honcho Thierry Frémaux generally proceeds in alphabetical order by the director’s surname, so as soon he cleared his throat, it was now or never for Ade—I couldn’t resist letting out a yell, even though it was well past the midnight hour on the West Coast.

Granted, Maren Ade isn’t a name that sets many pulses a-racin’. Few people have even seen her previous two features, and odds are that few will see this new one (though it does have a mighty intriguing poster). That’s the beauty of Cannes, though. If you’re mostly interested in what titans like Steven Spielberg and Sean Penn are up to, the festival is here for you: Penn’s The Last Face, starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, is competing here, and Spielberg’s The BFG will have its world premiere on the Croisette come Saturday. (Other Hollywood movies screening at Cannes this year include Money Monster and The Nice Guys; I won’t be covering either one, since they both open commercially soon afterward and will be reviewed by other A.V. Club critics.) At the same time, obscure cinephile favorites like Ade, Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days), and Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds) get treated as if they’re Spielberg. Toni Erdmann’s bizarro poster covers most of a four-story building across the street from the press office where I’m writing this. For these two weeks, at least, in a small resort town in the south of France, it’s a genuine event.

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Getting excited about the Cannes Competition lineup on paper is a fool’s errand—for every film that meets sky-high expectations, there are many that disappoint them. (For every Carol, a Sea Of Trees.) Still, I’d be lying if I said this isn’t the most promising slate I’ve seen since I started attending the fest back in 2002. Between now and next weekend, look for my thoughts on the latest pictures from the likes of Jim Jarmusch, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas, Park Chan-wook, Pedro Almodóvar, Jeff Nichols (yes, he already has another film, just three months after Midnight Special premiered at Berlin), Nicolas Winding Refn, Paul Verhoeven, and—a welcome last-minute addition—Asghar Farhadi. That’s only about half of the lineup, and it doesn’t include the dozens of potentially interesting films playing in the fest’s various other sections.

It was with a feeling of professional obligation rather than one of heightened anticipation, I confess, that I trudged to this year’s opener, Woody Allen’s Café Society (Grade: B-). Allen’s personal failings aside (and he did himself zero favors with his pre-Cannes interviews), his movies have been consistently mediocre for a while now; I didn’t even much like Midnight In Paris or Blue Jasmine, the ostensible exceptions from the past few years. Café Society surprised me, however—not by being especially good, but by being sneakily ambitious. Set sometime around 1936 (at least initially), it looks, for most of its duration, like one of Allen’s plotty divertissements, in the vein of Scoop and Magic In The Moonlight. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles and gets a job as a gofer for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a big-shot talent agent; Bobby then falls for Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), not realizing that she’s secretly having an affair with her boss. That’s a fairly high-concept narrative hook (with obvious echoes of The Apartment), and since Bobby has a brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), who’s a gangster, and we keep checking in on Ben in Brooklyn as he whacks various folks, it seems likely that these two threads will eventually connect somehow. Likewise, an early scene in which Bobby can’t bring himself to sleep with a nervous first-time prostitute (Anna Camp) creates expectations that her character will be seen again.

She won’t be. Ben’s violent life, too, has no direct impact on Bobby’s milder adventures. The love triangle never turns farcical, nor particularly tragic. By the end, it’s clear that Café Society has had loftier goals in mind all along. Of Allen’s previous films, the one it most closely resembles, in tone and structure, is Hannah And Her Sisters—there are no explicit chapters, but Allen narrates (in a voice that suddenly, disconcertingly sounds like that of an elderly man) in a novelistic style, and the movie is full of digressions that exist for no purpose except to convey a sense of life relentlessly moving forward whether or not people want it to do so. (Cast members on the periphery include Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, and Blake Lively.) Trouble is, Café Society only works when you step back and look at it whole. From moment to moment, it’s as painfully tin-eared as Allen’s other recent work, populated by characters who are barely distinctive or memorable enough for the trifle the film looks like on its surface, much less the weighty meditation on change and disappointment it finally reveals itself to be. Eisenberg falls into the Woody-imitation trap, Carell (who was a last-minute replacement for Bruce Willis) never really finds his inner Fred MacMurray, and Stewart struggles to embody a shallow idealization to be tarnished later. Even the ’30s pop-culture references, which should be in Allen’s wheelhouse, mostly clunk out of the actor’s mouths. DP Vittorio Storaro, who persuaded Allen to shoot digitally for the first time in his career, crafts some burnished images, but they can’t disguise the extent to which watching this film feels like listening to a formerly great pianist whose fingers are now gnarled with arthritis. The notes are right, and played in the correct order, but the tempo is way, way off.

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The only other film that’s screened thus far is Sieranevada (Grade: B-), from Romanian director Cristi Puiu (The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu). At just shy of three hours, it’s the longest of this year’s Competition titles, and also very likely the talkiest and the most claustrophobic. (All the chatter makes a sharp contrast from Puiu’s last feature, 2010’s Aurora, which was about the same epic length but almost dialogue-free.) Apart from the opening sequence and one brief interlude, the entire movie is set in a single house, where the family of nominal protagonist Lary (Mimi Branescu) has gathered, per Romanian custom, to memorialize Lary’s father, who’d died 40 days earlier. The deceased is rarely mentioned, as it happens, but other topics of heated conversation ebb and flow at random, with tempers flaring as dinner waits on the extremely tardy Orthodox priest who’ll be leading the service. Puiu shoots all of this hectic activity at eye level, constantly pivoting the camera to catch people entering and leaving adjacent rooms; one moment, we’re listening to Sebi (Marin Grigore) spout 9/11 truther theories he’s clearly picked up from watching Loose Change, and a moment later the philandering Tony (Sorin Medeleni) shows up to confront his constantly weeping wife, Ofelia (Ana Ciontea). Each of these arguments and confrontations is reasonably compelling in and of itself, but they never coalesce into a greater whole, and the feeling of being trapped with this bickering clan grows stifling over the course of three hours. (It’s a relief when Lary has to leave for a while during the third hour, and the camera follows him. He’s soon back, though.) Asked why he titled the film Sieranevada (intentionally misspelled in English), Puiu gave no explanation, merely saying that it “popped into [his] mind.” For better and worse, the film itself, which was inspired by the 40-day wake for Puiu’s own father, feels similarly random and personal.

TOMORROW: I’m actually writing this teaser the following morning, France time, and have already seen the first triumph of Cannes ’16: Staying Vertical, the latest effort by queer French iconoclast Alain Guiraudie (Stranger By The Lake). It deserves more consideration than I could give it here, so check back Friday for that rave, plus my thoughts on new pictures by Ken Loach, Bruno Dumont, and (if I can get in; the timing isn’t great) Marco Bellocchio.