Sax von Stroheim writes:
Every four or five years, Woody Allen makes a movie that everyone — critics and audiences alike — seems to love. Often, people will talk about these movies using some variation of the phrase “Woody’s return to form.” The aging auteur reclaiming past heights makes for a good, compelling story, but in Woody’s case it’s just a story. The reality is boring: the movies in between the consensus favorites get ignored or dismissed, but they’re almost all just as good, or even better than, the highly-acclaimed ones sandwiching them. That doesn’t provide a very good hook for a review, though. Something I’ve always liked about Woody is that he’s equally apt to make a movie inspired by his love of Ingmar Bergman as he is his love of silly, tossed-off Paramount comedies from the 1930s, but a lot of people don’t seem to know how to take his movies anymore when he’s not signalling that he’s making an important one.
Blue Jasmine was his last “return to form”, but I like the movies he’s made since then better.
Blue Jasmine, Woody’s riff on Tennessee Williams, was a purposeful, weighty movie. It’s follow-up, Magic in the Moonlight is a purposeful, lightweight movie. Essentially, Magic in the Moonlight is the “Why is life worth living?” line from Manhattan expanded into a George Bernard Shaw-style comedy. This is one of the modes Woody uses in his later work: taking a single idea from one of his earlier, novelistic movies and building a much more theatrical movie around it. Thematically, Magic in the Moonlight is almost relentlessly anti-magic, anti-fantasy, anti-religion, anti-spiritual-but-not-religious, and anti-romance. It’s also extremely charming.
Irrational Man, Woody’s next movie, I like even more than Magic in the Moonlight: everyone else seemed to like it even less, and there was at least one major critic who deemed it Woody’s worst. (I think it ranks up with his best ever). Irrational Man fills the space between Crimes and Misdemeanors and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — and just as Magic in the Moonlight expanded on Manhattan‘s “Why is life worth living?” line, Irrational Man expands on Manhattan‘s joke about baseball bats being better than op-eds for dealing with certain kinds of problems. Still, for all that it draws on from his earlier work, it isn’t like any movie he’s made before — and not much like any movie anyone else had made before either. It’s a psychological thriller pitched and played as one of those indie romantic comedy/dramas (think 50 Days of Summer) about two special snowflakes meeting cute and falling into quirky, problematic love. This gives the whole movie a push-pull feel: scenes aren’t played for tension or suspense (especially noticeable in those scenes that another director would play for tension or suspense e.g., the Russian roulette scene), and the underlying thriller plot ends up curdling the movie’s charm. On purpose, though.
I can see why that may be a turn-off, but that’s not an especially adventurous reaction. This is one of those movies that deep in its core is very strange, but it seems very familiar on the surface. Audiences and critics both got stuck on the surface, but the surface itself isn’t what’s satisfying about the movie so they came away from it thinking that it didn’t work and, anyway, they had seen it all before, despite the fact that (a) it works perfectly and (b) it isn’t much like any other movie. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which is for me, one of the highlights of Woody’s late period and one of the highlights of his career, ran into similar problems: that was a movie that was bleaker and nastier than the highly-acclaimed Match Point, but because it was played lightly people seemed to think Woody had failed at making a charming little comedy.
Woody’s latest, Café Society, is also in the same kind of “greatest hits” mode as Irrational Man. He brings in bits and pieces of his other movies — Bullets Over Broadway, Broadway Danny Rose, and Radio Days are the obvious ones, but Crimes and Misdemeanors ends up sneaking in through a back door and overtaking the proceedings — and rearranged them into a dark comedy of ideas that has no fear of being too theatrical or too literary. (Walking out of the theater, it struck me that late Woody is converging with late Resnais). As with a lot of Woody’s late work, it eschews any pretense of sociology or journalism: this has the least Hollywood feel of almost any movie set in the glory days of Hollywood, but that didn’t really bother me. I think what a lot of people loved about Woody’s movies from the 1980s was the way they opened a window on the lives of professional intellectuals and intellectual professionals living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. After Husbands and Wives, though, Woody stopped making those kinds of movies, moving fully away from novelistic sociology towards theatrical philosophy. (You can draw your own conclusions about why that shift happened at that point in his life). I think a lot of people miss that anthropological aspect of his work, though, which plays a part in why they find the later work less compelling.
Irrational Man is bolder and more inventive than Café Society, but Café Society hit me harder on the way out: the dissolve near the end of the movie between the two leads, united in longing, but separated by missed opportunities, assumptions, and bad timing, had more emotional punch than anything else in his recent work.
All three movies are recommended.