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by Elliot B. Gertel
WHILE WOODY ALLEN'S movies can be formulaic, this has rarely prevented him from telling a good story and providing interesting characters. But except for the fine cast and the enchanting luster provided by new production partner cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, Café Society comes across simply as a checklist for many a Woody Allen theme, motif, gag, bon mot, obsession, characterization, soundtrack, camera shot down through the years.
Allen even brazenly includes jokes about under-aged girlfriends and fiancées in Hollywood and New York.
The year is 1936. Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a high-powered Hollywood agent, is visited by his earnest nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who is looking to find work and start a new life. Bobby does not want to be cramped in a New York borough by his Jewish family’s small apartment and his father’s jewelry business. At first Phil avoids Bobby, hoping that his sister’s son will go away. But after after several days and a call from his persistent sister, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), Phil softens and sees the likable Bobby, offering him some gofer work.
Meanwhile Uncle Phil asks his secretary, Veronica “Vonnie” (Kristen Stewart), to show the young man around. Vonnie is beautiful and brainy, with a master's degree in literature. Bobby falls in love with her, but she puts him off with accounts of her married, complex boyfriend — whom Bobby will figure out to be his own Uncle Phil.
Back in New York, Bobby helps his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) run a nightclub that Ben has “purchased” through intimidation and murder. The nightclub becomes a great success, living up to its name “Café Society,” so much so that it ultimately attracts Uncle Phil and Vonnie east.
"JEWISH" STUFF pops up a lot in this film, including some mangled Yiddish. Early in his L.A. sojourn, Bobby comments at one of Phil’s posh gatherings: “I’ve never mixed champagne with bagels and lox before.” He is told: “Welcome to Hollywood.” There is even a Passover seder scene. And when Bobby meets his future wife, she tells him that his being Jewish plays into her rebellious nature and that: “You people are pushy.” Bobby accepts this depiction of Jews good-naturedly, meeting stereotyping with stereotype: “We control everything.”
But if Café Society is indeed an index of the leitmotifs and themes of Woody Allen's films, then the elements of being Jewish here depicted can be taken as guide to the filmmaker’s all-along assumptions.
First, that being Jewish is first and foremost defined by questioning another Jew's faith. Soon after we first see Bobby’s parents, his mother Rose tells his father (Ken Stott): “You don’t pray, you don’t fast, and you don’t have a Jewish head.” (At least one reviewer mistakenly interprets “Jewish head” — meant as a translation for yiddisher kop or “Jewish brains”—as a criticism that he doesn’t have a “Jewish-shaped head”!)
Second, that the family that questions one another stays together by protesting against God. This family gets off on not seeking answers. As Rose says: “No answer is also an answer.”
But if one is a gangster, like Ben, then answers matter. If one has committed multiple murders for one’s “business,” one is entitled to question all the “Jewish” questioning. In prison Ben studies the 6th Psalm with a priest. But he doesn’t associate it with Judaism, even if it comes from the Hebrew Bible and is recited by traditional Jews every morning and afternoon. (I am reminded of Abraham Heschel’s lament that a Jewish woman once told him, “I wish we Jews had something as beautiful as the Christian psalms.”) In the 6th Psalm, King David observes that those in Sheol (the afterlife’s shadow world) cannot thank God as do the living, so he hopes for God to save him, to “save my soul,” to preserve him in life, so he can properly serve God while living. The psalm does not deny the afterlife; it simply emphasizes that the best service of God can be achieved in this life. Christians have read the “saving of the soul” parts as referring only to securing one’s place in the afterlife. Echoing the Christian interpretation, Ben complains: “The Jewish religion doesn’t believe in an afterlife. I have to know that it all doesn’t just end.”
Woody Allen’s Jewish gangster studies Jewish texts in order to find loopholes to get away with what he is compelled to do — Woody Allen’s view of Torah study?
Ben does indeed convert to Catholicism in order to keep his future options open (for heavenly gangsterism?), much to the consternation of his mother, Rose, who cries: “First a murderer, then a Christian.” She then berates her husband once more: "You’re too stupid. You don’t appreciate the implications.” She throws in a critique of Judaism, as well — namely, that it’s too bad that the Jewish religion doesn’t have an afterlife: “They’d get more customers.”
In short, Allen’s Jews “practice” their Judaism by complaining about and decrying many things at once, including Judaism. But as Allen well knows, Judaism does have a conception of the afterlife, which is discussed in great detail in the Talmud. Allen himself dealt with a “Jewish” afterlife in Deconstructing Harry (1999). But it is not his mission to convey the facts of classical Jewish belief. To Allen, “practicing” Judaism is, above all else, kvetching about Judaism.
Jewish “ethics” are represented in this film by Bobby’s older sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick). As wife and mother, daughter and sister, Evelyn is pleasant enough. But when threatened by a vicious, gun-owning neighbor, she does not hesitate to resource the problem to her gangster brother. Shortly after she complains to Ben about this neighbor, the latter disappears. Realizing what has happened, Evelyn’s husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) preaches to his wife that “people are responsible for one another.” He even asks: “Is it a proportionate response?” (If this film is indeed an index of Woody Allen topics, then we can add to the list his criticism of Israel’s response to Hamas rockets.)
WHAT IS INTERESTING in this movie, and maybe the only thing that makes it a bit more than an index of Woody Allen topics, is that Allen depicts the biblical stuff as more compelling than the philosophical stuff. The only intellectual (of sorts) character in the film is Leonard, who talks in platitudes. Yet Leonard is more insightful and forceful when he mouths Bible-like phrases. Hearing that Evelyn complained about their neighbor to Benny, he rails: “There is blood-sin on your hands.” Obviously affected, Evelyn instinctively begs, “Christ, don’t get so biblical.” The biblical stuff is, after all, much more morally powerful than Leonard’s (Allen’s?) usual style: “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.”
As far as Jews are concerned, Allen depicts their “Judaism” as rendering them, in the words of the old saying, “like every one else only more so” — namely, morally ambiguous with a vengeance. But considering the years in which this film is set, and the graphic motif of Ben throwing people into graves (gangster cement notwithstanding), something else looms here.
Not all of Allen’s stock in trade is in this film. Though it depicts the 1930s, there are no Nazi or Holocaust jokes. But the visuals of Ben shooting people and throwing their bodies in prepared graves are not unlike documentaries of Nazi atrocities. Whether intended or not, the actions of a sociopath Jew mimic Nazi methods of execution. Those images overshadow any jokes about how Jews practice “Judaism.” If, as someone observes in the movie, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” why not present front and center the incongruity of a Jewish gangster killing for fun and profit just as the Nazis are setting up the Nuremberg laws and revving up their killing machines?
Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.