Politics & Policy

Who We Aren’t

Ghostbusters (Sony)
Ghostbusters and Café Society seek identity in gimmicks.

‘That’s not who we are,” a familiar presidential entreaty, came to mind after watching Woody Allen’s Café Society and the new Ghostbusters. Each film offers a comical view of American types, but enjoyment may depend on whether one feels the characters are credible. They aren’t. The Jewish-Americans of Café Society recall Allen’s boilerplate self-deprecation, while Ghostbusters has been rebooted, mostly with Saturday Night Live performers as urban caricatures. The gimmick in each film is to appease the current diversity craze.

These failed attempts to find humor in social identity (using such contrivances as Café Society’s Jewish-run amusement industries or Ghostbusters’ exaggerated personal peculiarities and trafficking in the supernatural) follow the president’s frequent allusions to Americans’ basic nature — always a non-specific, cure-all remedy to the latest social crisis. Politicians know such distraction is demagoguery; Hollywood calls it entertainment. Allen’s 1930s characters fumble with issues of prosperity, infidelity, and murder, while the contemporary lady ghostbusters use femininity to laugh off literal manifestations of evil. They’re all superficial constructs. Each movie is an exercise in moral evasion — entertainment as brainwashing.

Let’s analyze this by looking specifically at two contrasting portrayals: Leslie Jones’s in Ghostbusters and Blake Lively’s in Café Society. Black actress Jones and white actress Lively both play minor characters, yet they can be seen to represent who we, as a nation, think we are: the working-class black woman being the least among us in terms of plot significance and the leisure-class white woman being the most among us in terms of social privilege.

Jones’s Patty Tolan is the friendliest subway-booth clerk in New York City history. She lacks the education of the three white ghostbusters, who unite as professionals of paranormal science, but she has the gumption to join up out of the same fealty known from black domestics in early Hollywood films. Jones is the tallest of all the Ghostbusters actresses (the others being Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon), and at 48 years old she also suggests the longest career struggle, now finally receiving late acceptance from the showbiz mainstream. (For sentient viewers, this social fact is not unrelated to the actual role of Patty.) What appears “progressive” about Jones’s casting is American business-as-usual: Patty is described as the niece of the character that black actor Ernie Hudson portrayed as an aide to the white leads, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis, in the original 1984 Ghostbusters.

Leslie Jones in “Ghostbusters”

A feminist Gunga Din, Jones’s Patty makes it possible for the SNL white pukka sahibs to feel good about repeating Ghostbusters’ Eighties line-up — as if exhibiting generous social equality. That’s how escapist entertainment works: It disguises Hollywood’s entrenched biased hegemony as happily inclusive fun for all. Director Paul Feig, who saw no need to diversify the cast of his deplorable but lucrative Bridesmaids, perpetuates the same ol’ Ghostbuster tokenism. His cast of romantic dingaling (Wiig), plus-size clown (McCarthy), butch brainiac (McKinnon), and black sidekick (Jones) presumes to update the original film’s nonsense by virtue of representing Obama-era parity (which includes Chris Hemsworth as an unfunny beefcake version of Old Hollywood cheesecake), but Feig forgets that Reagan-era liberals felt no need to demonstrate equality; enjoying white privilege showed who they were, and filmgoers laughed while acquiescing.

Similar cultural stagnation occurs in Café Society. Woody Allen celebrates the vaunted era of New York’s segregated 1930s nightlife — and its West Coast counterpart in Hollywood. The story of Bobby Stern (Jesse Eisenberg), the brother of a New York gangster and nephew of a high-powered Hollywood agent, centers on his falling in love with non-Jewish women — a Los Angeles secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and an East Coast divorcee, Veronica (Blake Lively). But Allen glosses over the cross-ethnic infatuations as well as instances of ethnically restricted businesses. (The décor of Bobby’s nightclub evokes the infamously segregated El Morocco.) Like Feig in Ghostbusters, Allen uses comedy to avoid serious contemplation of the social inequities that accompany class advancement. (Café Society’s unoriginal dialogue, including Allen’s mumbly, gravelly narration, sounds hackneyed. It’s worse when Allen trots out his usual harangue that life is “meaningless.”)

Blake Lively in “Café Society”

Allen satirizes Jewish working-class ambition, paranoia, and class pretenses, whether in the luxe of Hollywood studios or the grime of New York racketeering. He romanticizes go-getter Bobby by imitating those Great Gatsby interpretations that read Jay Gatsby as Jewish. But while Allen emphasizes ethnic difference (mocking Bobby and family for their non-Orthodox behavior and occasional reversion to Yiddish-speaking type) he avoids exploring it. That Allen is no ethnicity-buster becomes clear when Lively enters the film. She’s a counterpart to the dark-haired Vonnie, yet she personifies a blonde, blue-eyed shiksa. “I think Jews are exotic,” Veronica tells Bobby, adding “I wouldn’t mind if you had horns.”

While parodying one-way racism, Allen’s shallow portrayal of Stern’s cross-cultural attraction refuses to acknowledge it as a complex part of “who we are.” The racist standards of film-industry practices go unexamined — both in Lively’s WASPy idealization and in the blonde hooker whom Stern rejects when he realizes she’s Jewish. The way Allen lingers on close-ups of WASP love-objects Vonnie and Veronica correlates with Feig’s using Jones’s stereotypical rambunctious black as comic relief in Ghostbusters.

Both films offer empty characterizations with superficial ethnic identities. The accusation lodged against Bobby’s uncle (“He’s not a [real] Jewish man!”) is surprisingly blunt given Café Society’s sentimental sociology. Similarly, in Ghostbusters, the peripheral status Patty inherits from her uncle is unexpectedly sentimentalized as a social advance.

#related#Hollywood’s pretense about “who we are” can be seen in the contrast between Lively and Jones — the one’s Caucasian elegance and the other’s comical blackness. Each film exemplifies modern Hollywood’s social complacency and lazy imagination. That also explains why Ghostbusters reduces ideas about the supernatural to 3D F/X gimmickry and Café Society wastes the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who provides color schemes similar to those in his legendary Bertolucci films (The Conformist, 1900, Little Buddha), but without dramatic vibrancy, without vision.

Allen doesn’t bother fleshing out characters in Café Society. They’re concepts still stuck in his head. Feig plays off bogus feminism (women who joke about their “cracks”) as before. These are identity-crisis movies — revealing who the filmmakers really are while pandering to our expectations about ourselves.

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