It’s that time of year again folks, in which cinephiles from all over the globe are now able to play the Woody Allen lottery. And of course, many of them are asking the same questions of his latest film: Could it be a failure? Could it be great? Or, is John Oliver right in saying “it’s one of the ‘fine’ ones”? But I digress, playing this game can be risky. The phrase “in it to win it” doesn’t exactly apply to this situation, considering tragic misfires such as Magic in the Moonlight and To Rome with Love. You have everything to lose – the respect of a revered filmmaker, precious time, and most likely £10-£15 based upon the extortionate prices of cinema admission these days… Thankfully, Café Society is one of the ‘surprisingly enjoyable’ ones.
Set within the Bronx of 1930s New York, Café Society is centred upon the neurotic and discontented Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg – genius casting as Allen’s acting substitute), the youngest son of a vibrant and colourful Jewish family. Seeking greener pastures, Bobby relocates to Hollywood in the hope of securing a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), who owns a high-profile and in-demand acting agency. Upon a chance encounter with Phil’s dreamlike secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), Bobby is undoubtedly smitten and begins to vie for her affections. Blinded by love and his charming naiveté, Bobby pursues Veronica despite the fact that she is in a complicated relationship with a journalist named Doug, who frequently travels he globe. Unbeknownst to Bobby, Veronica is in fact lying, and “Doug” is none other than Bobby’s uncle Phil.
Following 2015s morally complex, yet painfully elongated Irrational Man, Allen’s 47th feature in 50 years is almost disappointingly void of his signature motifs for audiences to grapple with. The legendary Crimes and Misdemeanours questions the existence of justice within the universe, his uproarious satire of Russian literature Love and Death pontificates whether God truly exists and Midnight In Paris contemplates whether we should be content with existing in the here and now, or lust after our rose-tinted view of a golden age. Within Café Society however, Allen seems content to place motifs of morality and philosophy on the back-burner, until at least the film’s third act in which Corey Stoll’s delightfully boisterous gangster Ben Dorfman (he chews the little scenery he has in a surprisingly nuanced performance) poignantly contemplates a conversion of religion, and the rest of the Dorfman family encounter a crisis of morality. It is within these two scenes that Allen communicates an assortment of repeated, but fascinating themes which possess deep emotional impact. Yet, these scattered nuggets of wisdom appear to be lazily inserted, as if he was trying to prove “I’ve still got it”, rather than explore something in great detail. Perhaps he didn’t have the time? Or maybe he’s just a little bored of those themes? In spite of their short existence, they fill the otherwise simplistic narrative with a reason to exist once more, perhaps in the hope that younger Allen fans who are attending for the duo of Eisenberg and Stewart, might just discuss them.
Amidst the glitz, glamour and incessant name-dropping of Hollywood’s most famous stars, Café Society also seems to be permeated by a distinct sadness, and is perhaps more concerned with the generation of nostalgia, than the narrative’s eventual denouement. In one particular sequence, Bobby and Veronica walk slowly through the foyer of an opulent movie palace, described unhurriedly and mournfully by Allen’s very own narration. The film itself often feels as though Allen regrets the absence of such luxuries and perhaps laments the mechanical and prescribed nature of modern-day Hollywood. Almost everything about the picture itself proves that Allen isn’t interested in conforming to many of today’s conventions. He opted to shoot digitally in this instance however, with an unexpected choice of cinematographer in Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), whose expertise allows the film to literally breathe and feel like 1930s Hollywood, complimenting Suzy Benzinger’s flawless costumes and Santo Loquasto’s jaw-dropping production design. Allen himself utilises narration and transition wipes, despite those techniques seeming just about extinct. At first, they’re almost refreshing. But, as the third-person narration continues to literally explain everything the characters are going through, it becomes condescending and frankly, quite irritating.
For all of its slight disappointments, Allen remains however, a gifted comic. His cynical approach to the Hollywood system creates opportunities for whip-smart dialogue to flow naturally and in abundance – “Unrequired love kills more people in the year than tuberculosis.” Allen may Shockingly, Allen also incorporates scenes of mildly graphic violence into the film, as men are executed by fellow gangsters or buried in a hole covered by cement (“If you ask politely, people listen.”). It’s a move which seems to have been heavily influenced by Scorsese’s Goodfellas (although the mood is kept strangely light with Allen’s typically jaunty soundtrack), and never quite works, but it proves he is able to direct intense scenes of action. What I would give to see Allen’s action blockbuster…
The true delight of Café Society lies not within the glorious mise en scène or Allen’s whip-smart humour, but its cast of dedicated actors and actresses. It’s true, many seem to only work with Allen so they can tick this privilege off their bucket list, but the combination of Eisenberg, Stewart and Blake Lively is worthy of praise. Eisenberg himself is gifted in his ability to emulate the fast pace of Allen’s manner and channels it within this substitute character, as he excitably rattles off lines in a handful of scenes – most hilariously during his moral dilemma with a young prostitute. He could simply choose to imitate Allen, yet he develops a distinct emotional vulnerability within his character, and utilises the charming naiveté of Bobby’s character, which sets him apart. Stewart herself appears to have been a Hollywood star transported from the 1930s, to the modern day. Her refreshingly understated performance as Veronica enforces the saying “less is more”, as the responses to Bobby’s romantic advances are often conveyed through expression, leaving audiences to actually engage with her on an intimate level.
Sadly, Café Society finds Woody Allen at his most thematically simplistic, trading intriguing philosophical discussion for a novelistic and sweeping old-school romance that is never contrived, but hardly original. Yet, it’s the cast that dazzle and completely sell the narrative – even supporting players such as Corey Stoll and Blake Lively compliment Allen’s witty prose in such naturalistic fashion, it stakes a case for them to be utilised within more prominent roles. Attend for the humour, leave having fallen in love with Kristen Stewart…
CAFE SOCIETY IS OUT IN CINEMAS NOW!