Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Woody Allen’s annual contribution to filmdom for the past 25 years or so always reminds me of what a great filmmaker he once was. Like other post Crimes & Misdemeanors or Hannah and Her Sisters films, this one is enjoyable, certainly superior to most low brow comedies unleashed on popcorn lovers this summer, but no longer as fresh or challenging as his those in his vintage collection. The characters in this bicoastal story are familiar to Allen fans, and as shallow as the Hollywood pool shown in the opening scene. Allen seems to be like rock roller Sisyphus, stuck in repeating his main themes and character over and over. Though he is too old to play a romantic lead, his stand-ins are obviously based on himself, making his films a cinematic equivalent of the selfies posted on FaceBook.
Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is throwing a big party at which he loves dropping names to impress his high rolling guests. He treats the telephone call from his Bronx sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) like an unwelcome interruption from someone he would just as soon forget. He has almost forgotten the name of her son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), about whom she has called, asking if he can help the young man start a new life in Los Angeles. When Bobby duly arrives at Phil’s office, the uncle puts off seeing him for a week or so. When at last they meet, Bobby is duly impressed by his uncle’s expansive office, Hollywood’s equivalent to a royal throne room. Phil, giving his visitor a vague promise of help, assigns his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart—Vonnie is short of Veronica) to show his nephew around the city.
Bobby is drawn by her unpretentiousness and simple tastes, so he soon falls in love with her. She at first resists because, as we soon learn, she has been carrying on an affair with the married Phil. In a rare moment of intimacy Phil tells Bobby of his desire to divorce his wife and marry the woman he has now fallen for. The woman’s name is not mentioned, so Bobby calmly advises that he should do what he feels right in doing. However, when in a fit of guilt and remorse Phil ends their affair, Vonnie turns to Bobby, spending all of her free time with him. They seem destined to marry, but then Phil does tell his wife he wants a divorce, and woos Vonnie back into his arms. The disillusioned Bobby returns to New York.
The West Coast sequence is often interlaced with scenes from the Dorfman family in the Bronx where the bickering Rose and Marty (Ken Stott) also have a daughter married to a professor, and an older son Ben (Corey Stoll) who is a gangster boss with a night club that he uses as a front. When Ben gives Bobby the job of managing the club, the young man finds his calling, ably mingling with the high society patrons. It helps that a couple he had befriended in Hollywood spends a great deal of time in Manhattan, thus steering many of their friends to the club. It is at the café’ that Bobby meets his new love, also named Veronica (Blake Lively), and soon they are married.
Almost a year after their break-up Vonnie comes to the club with her husband Ben and another couple. The distraught Bobby tries to resist their invitation to join them at their table. When he does give in, he is struck by how the once simple Vonnie now chatters away as mindlessly as the other Hollywoodites he had met and discounted on the West Coast. The ending, showing each of the former lovers attending New Years Eve parties on the separate coasts, is one that might make you think about the choices that people make—and their consequences. Is this a tale in which the two couples “live happily forever after”?
For some viewers the parents played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott will be the best part of the film. The two argue back and forth and raise the old question of life and death that formed a more important part of earlier Allen films. (“I accept death, but under protest,” Marty says at one moment. “Protest to who?” Mom replies. “Too bad Jews don’t have an afterlife,” she declares. “They’d get a lot of business.”) Bobby’s murderous brother Ben is treated with droll humor, the gangster saying during a scene when his henchmen are dumping a body into a cement pit, “If you ask nicely, people will listen.” In the old crime films, of which this segment is a parody, his story would be tragic, but Allen milks it for its humor.
The episodes are often explained by Woody Allen as narrator, and wonderfully supported by the period band music he has selected. The digital photography of Vittorio Storaro makes every scene eye-appealing. If we did not know of Woody Allen’s great period of filmmaking, this little film would be more satisfying. Now in his 80s, I suppose it should seem amazing that the New Yorker keeps on working and making films even this good. I think of the great Venetian painter Titian who also worked well into his 80s. The difference is that Titian kept turning out master pieces.
Still, we should be grateful for the film, whose theme seems to be that a person tends to become what they choose—as in Vonnie’s choice of the shallow Phil—so we should be very careful in our choosing. Mr. Allen is so much like the author of Ecclesiastes, but lacks the faith that apparently sustained that writer despite his cynical outlook. Only one of the characters in the film seems to possess a moral compass, and I am not able to tell from the huge list of actors on IMDB his name—he is Bobby’s brother-in-law embroiled in a dispute with a brutish neighbor who enjoys bothering them by playing his radio at full volume. Neither Vonnie or Bobby seem troubled by adultery, and Ben is quick to order a murder. The parents do not question much the source of the money that Ben gives them from time to time. Only this brother-in-law seems to care about anyone other than himself and the right and wrong of a situation. Maybe his story is more important than Bobby’s, although perhaps Mr. Allen has already told his story in Irrational Man.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.