Jazz standards, age-gap relationships, neuroses and nostalgia – these are all likely components of a Woody Allen film and all play major roles in the filmmaker’s latest romp in Café Society. These familiarities are at the same time undeniably pleasant and stilted in their laurels, but regardless, Café Society has a few noteworthy attributes unknown to any of Allen’s past films, those being the Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and the dynamic pairing of stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. While lacking some cohesive plot and thematic elements, Allen’s film finds focus in technical and visual depth as well as a few stellar performances that bring one of Allen’s most truly romantic films to life.
Café Society centers on the 1930s backdrop of Hollywood glamour, when the industry was coming to its zenith and when its beautiful elite socialized as a sport. For possibly the first time in Allen’s career, he puts his beloved Manhattan on level footing with Hollywood, even to the extent that we see New York playing a bit of catch-up (has Allen gone soft on us?). Audiences saw Allen’s rocky view of Los Angeles clearly in Annie Hall, where every Hollywood-tinged observation was met with bitter sarcasm from the comedian. The sarcastic divide is also present within Café Society, but now with a much more enlightened and playful tone. He illustrates Hollywood with its same pitfalls of name-dropping pretension, but with a caveat of its ability to unleash dreamers, romance and revelations in the excitement of the here and now.
Within this dreamy backdrop is a powerful yet blundering love story between Eisenberg’s Bobby and Stewart’s Vonny (aka Veronica). Bobby has come to Hollywood from Bronx, NY to make a living in the movie industry with the help of his uncle, a big-shot producer named Phil Stern (Steve Carell). His aspirations quickly take a back seat to a budding relationship with Vonny, Phil’s secretary (and secret lover). An awkward love triangle ensues and Bobby’s life takes a new direction when he decides to leave the Hollywood life behind and help run his gangster brother’s (Corey Stoll) new nightclub in Manhattan. While there, Bobby truly comes into his own, translating the attraction of the Hollywood social scene to the New York nightlife and finding a new Veronica to mend his wounded heart (Blake Lively proves to be perfect casting here as the mere embodiment of grace and glamour).
Bobby’s romantic entanglements and several other plot devices tend to pull focus from Allen’s bigger picture. He attempts to fill his dark comedy quota by introducing a criminal element in Bobby’s brother Ben (Stoll) and his dalliances within the gangster culture. Ben’s side story does not have any impact on the rest of the plot whatsoever aside from contributing some of the biggest laughs; however, it fortunately does lead to some great family scenes, particularly a family dinner showcasing the comedic talents of Jeannie Berlin (Inherent Vice) as Bobby’s mother. Ben’s storyline also allows Allen to squeeze in his obligatory musings on death and the afterlife, which although pithily comical and reflective of the strong Jewish culture in both Hollywood and New York, serve little purpose. Allen rather exposes the snare that some of his weaker films fall into, which is his apparent need to fit in every one of his go-to themes regardless of their significance within the story.
In a film packed with miscellaneous plot, Allen never fully submerges into the “cafe society” culture. It’s youthful manifestations, Bobby and Vonny, are its strongest representations. Eisenberg and Stewart embody the era with the perfect balance of sentimentality, pluckiness, and style. Eisenberg falls effortlessly into Allen’s stock neurotic leading man, but with his own added touch of charm and light-heartedness. He brings out an innocence in the character that is not typical of an Allen protagonist. Likewise, Stewart is a perfectly subtle revelation as Vonny. Allen’s script flows organically from Stewart, possibly more so than any other role she has played. Her little tics (contemplative head shakes and lip bites, love them or hate them) disappear in Vonny, and Stewart transforms into the unlikely 1930s dream girl. Together, the pair has an electric and undeniable chemistry that transcends the moving plot and the story rather moves through them. If anything, this film is further proof that Eisenberg and Stewart should both call it a day and only do movies together (to date, the two have also co-starred in Adventureland and American Ultra). The same unfortunately cannot be said about Stewart and Carell, whose affair in the film feels contrived and unnatural – this has little to do with the actors themselves, but rather with a strange casting mismatch.
Outside of performance, plot and the vague invocations of the “cafe society”, Allen manages to expound his subject material through various technical and visual means. Allen’s direct presence as the film’s narrator is one such example. The director has worked prominently behind the camera in recent years, allowing other actors to fulfill his vision (his last appearance being in 2012’s To Rome with Love). Allen’s voice literally permeating this story, though, lends a fittingly Old Hollywood feel to the film. Allen, in his own way, is a prominent Old Hollywood figure, and his narration roots his material in time and place while bridging the gap between the Los Angeles and New York settings.
Allen also bridges this gap through the help of his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, whose experiments with light and shadow add visual and thematic consistency to the entire project. By the end of the movie, Allen’s ultimate goal is apparent: to tell his own kitschy rom-com version of the American Dream, depicted in the bustling atmosphere of the 1930s movie industry and artistic culture. Storaro mirrors this sentiment through his use of light and color in every scene. Apart from a few necessary sunny California exterior shots, every surrounding visual has the illusion of being lit directly by the sun at twilight. The sun is setting on Allen’s characters throughout the film, creating an effervescent tone of a sleepy dream world where reality can touch possibility. We see this mood take effect in the spirit of the social scenes, in the central romance, and in Bobby and Vonny’s individual maturations and successes. This is where Café Society enchants its story and actually drives home its purpose.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
While Café Society will definitely not go down as one of Allen’s greatest works, it does have its own unique contributions to his canon. Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo are both more successful films among Allen’s period pieces, however, this film will stand on its own by the power of his leading couple and the visual intrigue of Storaro. Pairing that with Allen’s magnetic humor – including a slew of fantastic one-liners such as “live every day like its your last, and one day you’ll be right” – will keep audiences delightfully entertained despite a few hiccups along the way.