Friday, August 5, 2016

Cafe Society: Woody Allen Channels Billy Wilder

Warning! Spoilers ahead.

There I was, blissfully enjoying “Café Society,” Woody Allen’s latest film, on its own merits. The setting of Hollywood in the golden 1930s was a home run for me and the characters and plot were pure Woody – whose work I always enjoy. So, imagine the extra  jolt of pleasure when I started seeing similarities to one of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.”

Buddy Boy and Bobby - 2 up and comers

Allen’s hero Bobby (played by Jesse Eisenberg, an acceptable Woody-stand-in) is a young man of ambition, wanting to leave the hum-drum fate that would surely be his by following his father’s footsteps in Brooklyn, to the glamour of Hollywood. Lucky for him, his uncle Phil (Steve Carell, who just seems too nice) is a big shot agent. Like C.C. Baxter, he is a young man who is eager to succeed.

Uncle Phil and Mr. Sheldrake - bosses with benefits

After some false starts, Bobby finds a place in his Uncle’s office,  but the place he would like to be most comfortable is in the arms of his Uncle’s lovely assistant, Vonnie. Vonnie clearly likes Bobby and the 2 become good friends. Bobby wants more and Vonnie holds back. She has a boyfriend. And so, like CC Baxter waiting outside the Music Man for Fran Kubelik, Bobby waits for a romantic dinner with Vonnie. But both ladies had other plans.

I was riding along on a single track with Woody when the breath was knocked out of me a bit as Vonnie met in a darkened restaurant with her lover, who just happens to be Bobby’s Uncle Phil – Vonnie’s boss and Bobby’s, too. It was the same breathless reaction I had when Miss Kubelik meets Mr. Sheldrake for the first time. A little shocked, a little sad.

Kristen Stewart as Vonnie steals the show. Like Shirley Maclaine, but not at all like Shirley Maclaine, she is different from the other girls, She is genuine and unique in a world of bland prettiness.

As Vonnie keeps her double life secret, both Bobby and Phil pursue her. Unlike the cad Sheldrake, Phil actually does leave his wife, but not before he does much soul searching (Woody is never as cynical as Billy Wilder).  In both films, an important item sets our clueless heroes straight. For CC Baxter, a broken compact reveals the heartbreaking truth that the girl of his dreams in having an affair with her married boss. 

For Bobby, a framed letter love letter from Rudolph Valentino to an unnamed amour that sits on Uncle Phil’s desk provides the same shattering realization. In the end, Vonnie chooses Phil and Bobby’s hopes are crushed. What if Sheldrake had left his wife for Fran? “Café Society” presents an alternate view of “The Apartment’s” triangle, a photograph in negative.

Vonnie embraces her choice; Fran dodges a bullet

The break-up only reinforces Bobby's need to return to New York where, working with his gangster brother, he helps run a fashionable night club. His rough edges get polished, his confidence grows and he even marries a beautiful shiksa goddess (whose name is also Veronica – go figure - and played by an impossibly nice Blake Lively). All is well (well, except that the brother is executed) when, years later, Phil and Vonnie visit the café and old memories, never far from the surface, are again stirred. It all culminates at a New Year’s Eve party, just like in “The Apartment,” but instead of a happy ending for the lovers, both are left with the melancholy longing for the road not traveled.

The choices made by the characters in both films determine the outcome. Phil chooses to change his life for Vonnie and his decision made her chose him. Sheldrake, tossed out by his wife, chooses Fran by default, but she chooses CC Baxter. Fran remains true to her self, while Vonnie changes (as most people do). While Woody is more romantic than Wilder, he is also a sadder and wiser realist operating in a sadder and wiser world. In 1960, perhaps there was hope that CC and Fran would make a go of it and stay the same sweet kids who leave us playing gin. In 2016, we know it is most likely that Vonnie and Bobby would not risk all for love without a gilt-edged guarantee.


Lawrence Kaplowitz said...

Exactly the way I saw this movie- only Woody made his Sheldrake more messed up rather than mean !

Silver Screenings said...

Brilliant! Loved your analysis. I've not yet seen Café Society, but when I do I'll certainly have your review in mind.

Don't you just love that movie poster?

Rick29 said...

I'm much more inclined to see "Cafe Society" now. Woody's last efforts have seemed a little stale, but this one sounds interesting--especially given your comparisons to one of my favorite movies.

Christian Esquevin said...

Fascinating comparison. I haven't seen Cafe Society yet but will be keeping your analysis in mind - I generally admire all the Woody Allen movies although this one hasn't gotten much praise.

FlickChick said...

Lawrence - thanks for stopping by. Woody, at this point in this career, does not have sharp edges. His characters may be selfish and dim, but never completely mean and nasty, as Mr. Sheldrake was.

FlickChick said...

Ruth - yes - I love that poster - so classic! The film is not near a classic, but lovely to look at and a fun way to spend a few hours. Any summer film with no super heroes or special effects works for me.

FlickChick said...

Hi Rick. Like the last few, the film is a bit "thin," but beautifully filmed and it was fun spotting the similarities to one of my favorite films. Nice to see Woody tip his hat to Wilder.

FlickChick said...

Christian - I'd be interested in your view of the costumes. Kristen Stewart always looks interesting to me, but I need you to tell me if grown women really were running around in anklets.

Inge Gregusch said...

Terrific post! I love this movie. Nylon stockings were introduced circa 1938. Kristen would have to have been wearing silk hose. The anklets symbolize her youth. Later in the movie she does wear hose.

FlickChick said...

Muchas gracias, amiga. And thanks for the hosiery history!

Mythical Monkey said...

I saw it yesterday and had the same thought! I kept thinking, "This is The Apartment if Baxter and Miss Kubelik don't get together at the end." The Apartment is one of my all-time favorites -- I enjoyed seeing a sort of wistful, alternate-universe take on what might have happened.

Unknown said...

FlickChick, what a brilliant analysis, enhanced by the perfect pix selection you made! 👏👏👏
I discovered the Billy Wilder masterpiece yesterday and couldn’t stop thinking what I had loved so much from Café Society, was at best an hommage, at worst (I have to much respect for Mr Allen cinematography to believe that) a plagiat.
Thank you for sharing this with us, hope we’ll catch up on other cult references! 👌