There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?"Alternatives only exclude" says Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) to Vonnie -short for Veronica (Kristen Stewart) who ended up choosing his uncle (Steve Carrell) over him.
- Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
He says that in CentralPark after spending a night taking her around NewYork City.
What the film manages to do, is to question Bobby's choices: he seems to have exaggerated the differences between the Californian society which he eschewed, and the NewYork society which he returned to. It wasn't as much a simpleton's return to the familiar. It is the choice of where he would thrive, masquerading as a character-cultural choice.
The NewYork condescension for L.A. is a delightful old Woody trope. (Alvy Singer: "I don't want to move to a city where the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light"). Bobby Dorfman's condescension seems less justified or rather the film doesn't obviously lean towards the protagonist here, insofar as painting a picture of the society in which he operates.
When he meets Vonnie again and sees in her the Hollywood vapidity she had once proclaimed to dislike - the very point they had bonded over. He now questions her about it. But can such choices be simply explained?
Is he still the 'simple' NewYork boy out of place in Hollywood, as he was when they met ("You have this deer in the headlights quality") ?
Not only is he running a happening nightclub in NewYork, but is quite aware that the place is also a front for his mobster brother Ben. Of course, he is not alone in looking the other way - New York Cafe Society itself kinda is. And for this precise reason, his brother seems less enamoured by them than Bobby himself is - despite all his protestation in Hollywood.
Bobby meets (another) Veronica - played by Blake Lively - who exudes the grace of the era- a sharp contrast to Vonnie's energetic directness.
And the directness of - for instance - his Irrational Man, leaves one feeling cold towards the moral quandaries that its characters wrestle with, as unlike how one engaged with them in, say, earlier works like Crimes and Misdemeanours
It is difficult to contest that. But then, it is also unnecessary to.
Because, using such sparseness Woody routinely depicts, difficult to realize-on-screen moments of conflict, complexity and human frailty - in unambiguous, heartening terms, in ways only he seems to be able to.
For instance, in the scene when Bobby meets his wife-to-be Veronica - Woody deftly depicts how an abiding sense of loss can coexist without denting the earnestness with which one can grasp for new love. Its is not a convenient choice, by any measure. It is a sincere one.
"Has anyone called you Vonnie?" he asks her when they meet.
That reminded me of the other artist who meditations on love, its complexity and vulnerability have been routinely outstanding : Louis CK.
It is heartening to see the level of overlap between Woody's universe and Louis's in overtly recognizable aspects such as casting (Alan Alda in Horace &Pete, Parker Posey in Louie and in two back-to-back Woody movies, Louis himself in Blue Jasmine, Susan E.Morse editing Louie etc.) However, the way they capture the awkwardness as the overarching motif of life is the most striking similarity: Hey! This is my first time living life- the characters seem to say. And this makes their works achieve a unique pitch.
As Louis wrote in the introductory email to one of Horace & Pete episodes:
I believe that "funny" works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with "awful", "sad", "confusing" and "nothing".How better can things be put?
Later, when Louie meets Amia (S4E5) - he tries to recreate the magic by taking Amia to the same places - and it doesn't work. Only we, the audience is privy to the pathetic fact that he is trying to relive an older experience with another woman.
Is he replacing one person for another - as if it doesn't matter? Does he simply want to give her something he enjoyed earlier? Even, if so, is that all he knows - a man of fortyish- that he can give her?
How clumsily sad! And then she doesn't like it. How worse! Or is he much the better and earnest for trying? Who knows?
Isn't that how people go on frantically clutching at possibilities of happiness?
In Search of the Other
When The Coens were charged 'unnecessarily' setting their films in the past, even when the plot did not demand it (think Serious Man), they responded by questioning the automatic nature of the choice of locating a film in the present in the first place (sic)'you step out of your house and you see the present anyway'.
This is to be especially borne in mind when viewing the critics' grumble that Woody's Eurocapital films, apart from superficial atmospherics (and the names - Barcelona, Roma, Paris!) have hardly internalized and presented any of their essence.
That seems to proceed from a curious conclusion that Woody has somehow 'captured' NewYork! Right from Manhattan the undercurrent has been of exaggerating the nature of ones investment in ones environs and then deriving personality from it. The reduction to cultural stereotypes is met with scorn but not dismissed within the films themselves.
The films launch a frontal attack on the idea of the exotic other. Beneath how beautifully they are captured, the continued theme seem to be clumsiness of attempting to grasp an 'other'.
If VCB was a snide at 'visiting an other' and scooping out one's fill in a gap-year, Midnight.. was taking a shot at 'nostalgia' itself.
In this background ..Rome, was a delectable take, contrasting the romanticism that comes exaggerating environs and life itself. Woody nonchalantly traverses between the absurd and literal, in a manner last seen in his Alice - also starring Alec Baldwin.
These works are exciting in ways starkly different from films like Radio Days, where the nostalgia is suffused with warmth and oddity.
Viewing so, will help to rightsize the nature of the gambit in the delicious looking prospect: Wonder Wheel.
And it is on similar lines that we should view Cafe Society. It is not about capturing the 'Roaring Twenties'. Or painting a richly textured character study in a vividly captured background. It is yet again, about the nature of our selves, how we try to think, we can handle things better by a change of time,place and circumstance.
One is encouraged to resist reading the ending as a simple distant wistfulness pointing to inadequacies in what was eventually obtained. Bobby and Vonnie's choices are shown to be well-aligned to who they turned out to be (or vice-versa!). And this is only affirmed by their re-acquaintance. Just that, that is shown to unobtrusively coexist with...
Veronica: your eye looks so dreamy...