Divorcing Paul Mazursky

New Hollywood auteur Paul Mazursky built a career on honest, daringly frank discussions of sex & romance, an ethos he established as early as his 1969 Free Love breakout drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Although that film’s exact themes of marital fidelity & intensive psychotherapy continued throughout his work as his career developed, he did adapt those preoccupations to the changing times as he aged. Our current Movie of the Month, Mazursky’s late 70s divorcee drama An Unmarried Woman, for instance, depicts the fallout of the Free Love movement once lauded in his previous work, demonstrating how the breakdown of traditional marriage & sexual fidelity left many women socially & financially isolated in desperate need for feminist independence in their new sexually “liberated” world. Even that update could only remain fresh for so long, however. As America entered “The Age of Divorce” in the 1990s, the dissolution of the traditional marriage became more of a norm than an anomaly, and Paul Mazursky updated his own ruminations on the subject accordingly. Whereas the jump from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to An Unmarried Woman marked an advancement in Mazurksy’s maturity, though, the next chapter in this reflections on the evolving nature of divorce found him devolving in the opposite direction, both as an artist and as a thinker.

Admittedly, the declining allure of Mazursky’s fidelity dramas is somewhat attributable to the real-time aging of his characters. The turn-on sexual energy of performers like Natalie Wood & Elliott Gould in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and even the confident adult sexuality of Jill Clayburgh ten years later in An Unmarried Woman only enhance those films’ themes of sexual & romantic experimentation. By the time Mazursky aged along with his characters into the 1990s, his work stopped being a relatably prurient rumination on a tantalizingly taboo topic and started to feel like walking in on your parents mid-coitus. In 1991’s Scenes from a Mall, Mazurksy updates his divorce-drama template with the middle-age players Woody Allen (a known sexual abuser) & Bette Midler (who is always fabulous, but still). Watching Natalie Wood talk her uptight hipster friends into an impromptu orgy or watching Jill Clayburgh dance alone in her underwear to Swan Lake is one thing. Watching Woody Allen go down on Bette Midler in a public movie theater is something else entirely. The only small consolation of this updated dynamic is in finally seeing Allen pursue a romantic partner who is somewhat age-appropriate a concession that’s only soured by watching Midler be degraded by sharing the screen with the monster and the gag-worthy visual of the two performers making out at length in remarkably thin underwear.

Lack of genuine sex appeal is only one small factor in the declining quality of Mazurksy’s divorce-drama ruminations, though it is a glaring one. The larger problem is the broadening of his humor and the erosion of his search for honesty. There’s an impressively subtle, delicate irony to the hipster parody of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice that carries over into An Unmarried Woman (although broad caricatures like the sausage-gnawing caveman artist Charlie does test its boundaries). By the time Scenes from a Mall arrives, Mazursky is deploying all the subtlety & restraint of a feature-length All That sketch. Wood Allen’s midlife crisis in the film is signaled by a ponytail, a surfboard prop, and an affair with a 25-year-old. His main comic foil is a recurring mime gag performed by Bill Irwin. Cross-eyed nutshot reactions, a rapping Greek chorus, and Marusky’s own cameo as a Freudian pop psychologist are all distinctly broad & cheap in a way that feels below the director’s stature. That line of easy, goofball humor is also directly at odds with the literary stage play structure of the piece, as Scenes from a Mall is largely a Before Sunrise-style indie drama following a single, complex marital argument over the course of one afternoon, practically in real-time. The result is an incongruous tone one that demands you both take its romantic & sexual conflicts dead seriously but also bust a gut when the LA douchebag punches the mime for being a pest.

For what it’s worth, Mazursky does maintain a sliver of the honest, daring discussion of marital fidelity he established in previous works, even if Scenes from a Mall is an inappropriate vessel for the exercise. Staging one extensive, uncomfortable argument between a long-married couple in a Californian shopping mall is, at least in the abstract, a very promising conceit. Plenty of couples have marriage-ending meltdowns in parking lots, Wal-Marts, Bourbon St. dive bars, and other mundane public spaces that would make for similarly ironic backdrops. Midler’s initial reaction to hearing of Allen’s affair with a younger woman is also disarmingly believable. She starts in a place of quiet acceptance, then erupts into a seething, vengeful anger in a well-written, well-performed estimation of genuine heartbreak. As grotesque as watching Woody Allen go down on her in public feels, the overall back & forth between burning bridges to the past & sexually reconciling in wild passion does feel true to life & the messiness of the human heart. It also says a lot that the frank discussion of sexual infidelity that pushed buttons in Mazursky’s 1960s work was still taboo in the 1990s (not to mention the 2010s), at least enough to justify his continued needling at the topic. It’s just a shame all that honesty couldn’t have been funnelled into more appealing performers & a better considered tone.

It is unclear whether the broadening of the comedy or the compromising of the honesty were a choice of Mazursky’s or a sign of the changing times. It’s entirely possible that it was simply much easier to successfully pitch a broad comedy where mimes get punched & scrotes get kicked by the time that Scenes for a Mall arrived than it was to properly fund the serious, adult dramas of Mazursky’s distant New Hollywood past. Either way, Mazursky has much more rewarding divorce & fidelity dramas in earlier works like An Unmarried Woman, which sustain Scenes from a Mall‘s brief flashes of disarming honesty with confidence & bravery the latter work never fully musters. The only saving graces for Scenes from a Mall, then, are in its value as a novelty: documenting early-90s shopping mall excess; casting Woody Allen as a New Age Los Angeles twerp in tracksuits instead of a nebbish New York twerp in tweed; the aforementioned horrors of public cunnilingus; etc. Of course, those minor pleasures only fade the more unpleasant (if not outright traumatic) it’s becoming to watch Woody Allen onscreen, and Paul Mazursky’s marital fidelity oeuvre would ultimately be much better off if it could somehow divorce itself from Scenes from a Mall entirely.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the late-70s feminist drama An Unmarried Woman, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our profile of its most substantial guiding influence, Dr. Penelope Russianoff, and last week’s look at the director’s most iconic work, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

-Brandon Ledet

Café Society (2016)

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“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”

Y’all, I think I just watched my last Woody Allen movie. I’m done. In fact, I applaud the two women who walked out of Café Society after seeing Allen’s name appear in the opening credits. At the time I was annoyed that two fellow theater patrons would argue audibly over the first scene of a movie before storming to the exits (presumably over the director’s decades-old rape allegations & sordid familial history), but no less than ten minutes later I totally sympathized, maybe even to the point of envy. I had been over fifteen years since my latest Woody Allen film, Small Time Crooks, just enough time for me to forget that even the writer-director’s most lauded work was never really  my thing. I like my Woody Allen movies like I like my Beatles: young & goofy. The zany comedy of titles like Take the Money & Run and Sleeper were always more interesting to me than Allen’s headier work, so I really had no business watching Café Society in the theater in the first place. If it weren’t for the wealth of Kristen Stewart goodness promised in the trailer I probably never would’ve been there to begin with. I should’ve known better & followed those two miffed strangers to the exits.

By all means, Café Society‘s tour through Old Hollywood romance & glamor should be cinephile catnip. Actually, I’m sure there are plenty of movie nerds out there who’ll love it, not just Woody Allen diehards. The cinematography is breathtaking, stunning, gorgeous. Kristen Stewart is, as always, a rare treasure, this time afforded the proper temporal context for her natural Lauren Bacall smokiness. The costume & production design very nearly touch the heights of the similarly-set nostalgia dream Hail, Caesar! from earlier this year. Yet, the film is a thoroughly grating, slow moving torture and the problem is Woody Allen himself. Although he does not appear onscreen, you cannot escape Woody Allen in a single frame of Café Society, a forgotten recurring intimacy with the director I just remembered is always more than a little suffocating. Not only does the filmmaker narrate the story himself, he also seemingly directs Jessie Eisenberg’s protagonists to act exactly like him, a caricature that’s somehow even less likeable than Eisenberg’s unofficial Max Landis impersonation as Lex Luthor in Dawn of Justice. The major difference, of course, is that Luthor is a villain while this Allen surrogate is likely supposed to play as sympathetic, a gamble that simply doesn’t work. And since the late-period Allen humor of Café Society falls consistently flat, there’s not much else onscreen to distract you from the problem. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Dune, Ladyhawke) & Kristen Stewart simply aren’t enough to save this film on their own, try as they might. It was doomed with or without them.

Eisenberg’s protagonist is a fish-out-of-water Jewish twentysomething who leaves his beloved Manhattan behind in an attempt to make it as an industry type in Hollywood. The film constantly insists that he’s adorably naive or goofily nervous, but all I see is a self-absorbed monster that would make Barton Fink look like a humble mensch. Once he finds his feet at his first job in Hollywood, he immediately falls for Kristen Stewart’s cool kid office girl and constantly hounds her like an workplace creep in a weird MRA-type “friend zone” wooing ritual that sort of works, for a while, despite Stewart’s character’s passionate love for an older, wealthier, married man. Their relationship is doomed to impermanence, but what’s strange about Café Society is the way it asks you to root for their success. I never get the sense that Eisenberg’s protagonist or, hell, even the film itself are deserving of Stewart’s master class in effortless cool, despite the two actors’ dynamic working for me just fine before in the films Adventureland & American Ultra. Instead, I found myself trying to ignore their romance for as long as I could by focusing on the film’s gorgeous visuals until, by the end, I was mostly just desperate for it to be over.

The last time I remember feeling this severe of a disconnect between find a film achingly beautiful & loathing every second of its content was with Terrence Malick’s love-it-or-hate-it Tree of Life. I’m sure Café Society, along with a lot of late-period Allen, will prove to be similarly divisive, with the director’s more dedicated fans finding plenty of nervous humor & old world sensibility to delight in, but this film simply wasn’t for me. Especially missing was the majesty of Old Hollywood brought to vivid life in the far superior Hail, Caesar! & reduced here to endless namedropping at cocktail parties (something the film pretends to despise, but does so unconvincingly). Worse yet is a central romance it’s difficult to root for and a protagonist who’s far less interesting than literally any other character the story could’ve followed: Stewart’s (obviously), his adorable parents, his Boardwalk Empire-era gangster bother, Steve Carell’s Eddie Mannix archetype, Parker Posey’s eternally buzzed socialite, a still-tired-from-fighting-a-shark Blake Lively who’s given frustratingly little to do, a sex worker he meets for all of five minutes, a plate of spaghetti, a spilled martini, wet concrete, again, literally anything.

Woody Allen makes himself (or at least a younger version of himself) the center of the show and the results are consistently obnoxious, much like the film’s never-ending dixieland jazz soundtrack that constantly reminding you to have a cheesy good time until you hit the last minute melancholy. If Café Society isn’t my last Woody Allen picture it’s because he’s going to cast Kristen Stewart in a future project or I’m going to again forget, with time, that his films are not really my thing (or, most likely, I’ll get sucked into it by my ongoing Roger Ebert Film School project). In the mean time I hope I don’t find myself getting as far as walking out of one of his movies when I’m surprised by his name in the opening credits. That seems like an awful waste of time and money (though, maybe not as awful as actually staying).

-Brandon Ledet