Woody Allen’s latest, Café Society, is a tragicomic look at love and regret, set on the fringes of showbiz. The film, gorgeously photographed by three-time Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro, gives the warm glow of nostalgia to the period in which (while the working class struggled to put food on the kitchen table) Hollywood movers and shakers lived the high life. It’s a world where outsiders can quickly become insiders, but may lose something important in the process. Jesse Eisenberg, as a gawky New York kid who tries going Hollywood, makes a perfect neo-Woody surrogate, and Kristen Stewart has a fresh loveliness that explains why she gets under men’s skin. But I want to focus on Steve Carell, playing superagent Phil Stern. He’s a Hollywood success story, a wheeler-dealer who’s always too busy juggling calls from Ginger Rogers and Adolph Menjou to complete a conversation with whoever’s right in front of him.
I’ve got agents on the brain right now, because I’ve just finished reading a fascinating business book by my friend and colleague, Marina Krakovsky. In The Middleman Economy: HowBrokers, Agents, Dealers and Everyday Matchmakers Create Value and Profit, she argues that we are all middlemen (or, I suppose, middlewomen) in one way or another, whether we work in business, in education, as realtors or as nannies. Using lots of real-world examples, she cleverly categorizes various ethical middleman functions as The Bridge (“Spanning the Chasm”), The Certifier (“Applying the Seal of Approval”), The Enforcer (“Keeping Everyone Honest”),. The Risk-Bearer (“Reducing Uncertainty”), The Concierge (“Making Life Easier”), and The Insulator (“Taking the Heat”). Discussing this last category, she introduces powerful sports agent, Drew Rosenhaus, whose abrasive personality—as used in support of his many star clients within the National Football League—inspired an important character in the film Jerry Maguire. Rosenhaus makes no apologies for his outrageous verbal attacks on team management. He sees these as serving his clients’ interests: on their behalf he can take the heat for his own rants, saving the athletes from burning their bridges with their teams.
Marina deals with the positive outcomes that result from middlemen’s maneuvering. Leave it to Hollywood, of course, to focus on situations in which middlemen find they can’t stomach their in-between position. George Clooney has made something of a specialty of portraying the man in the middle, in such films as Michael Clayton (2007) and Up in the Air (2009). In both he plays a fixer charged with smoothing over something that’s illegal, or at least profoundly unpleasant (like the firing of a firm’s longtime employees). Eventually, of course, his character sees the light. Then there’s Tom Hanks, another of Hollywood’s traditional good guys, who in Bridge of Spies (2015) reluctantly takes on the task of defending a Soviet spy in an American courtroom, and somehow emerges unscathed by the process.
Steve Carell’s agent-character in Café Society doesn’t seem to be doing anything that’s either illegal or profoundly distasteful. But there’s the acute sense that his in-between position has turned him into both a sycophant and a poseur, one who’s forever sucking up to those above him and lording it over those who haven’t reached his level. He gets richly rewarded (romantically and every other way), but perhaps loses his soul. Just like another of the film’s characters: his brother Ben. Ben is a Brooklyn mobster who takes care of business when someone needs to be taught a lesson. If you need help with a noisy neighbor, for instance, just say the word. But I don’t think Marina Krakovsky has this kind of middleman in mind.