Café Society (2016)

Anyone who is anyone will be seen at Café Society.

With an illustrious career spanning for over six decades, it’s always exciting when American actor-comedian-musician-playwright-filmmaker Woody Allen releases a brand new picture, this being his 52nd. Assuming the shape of a novel (structurally speaking), Café Society is a sweeping tale set in the late 1930s — an age known for its social ambiance — the film taking the drama from the pastel-lit Hollywood Hills to the rough-and-tumble streets of New York, before finally coming to rest in the glow of Manhattan’s glitzy high life, a scene that saw the pompous and powerful — politicians, movie stars, debutantes and playboys — commune alongside the shady and crooked — working girls, wise guys, cheating husbands and jealous wives (who’d often plot to have their man beaten or worse, killed, for foolin’ around with another broad). The fashion was chic and the music, cool and smooth. And despite the Great Depression, which took a toll upon the United States economy, it was an era that encouraged lost minds to awaken to new possibilities and forge ahead towards their own starry-eyed dreams.

Enter college grad Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a Bronx-born youngin’ who leaves his colorful (inherently Jewish) family — throwing away a career selling jewellery at his folk’s store — to move to the City of Angels, Bobby landing himself an ‘errand boy’ gig for his go-getting uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-shot Hollywood agent who pretty much just cooks up a job for his visiting nephew. Anyhow, it is there that Bobby is introduced to Phil’s fetching office assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who’s instantly tasked with chaperoning ‘the kid’ around. Of course, this is no problem for the smitten Bobby, who quickly falls for Vonnie’s feminine charms, the alluring young lass showing Bobby the Tinsel Town sights, taking him on a tour of the movie star mansions whilst sharing her honest outlook on the superficial Hollywood life.

The LA sun finds a way to warm even the most hardened of Brooklynite sensibilities.
The LA sun finds a way to warm even the most hardened of Brooklynite sensibilities.

Unfortunately though, Vonnie — short for Veronica — happens to be involved with another man, thus Bobby is forced to take the back seat and settle for mere friendship (even if he longs for something more), spending time with this gorgeous gal whenever her journalist ‘boyfriend’ is away on business (which seems to be quite often). You see, Bobby, too, isn’t into the silliness of the razzle-dazzle, an idea that’s consistent with Vonnie’s ‘oh so cynical’ views, the duo complementing one another quite nicely — it helps that stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart share such natural chemistry, Café Society being the third film in which the pair co-star, following 2009’s Adventureland and American Ultra (2015).

Getting into the ‘swing of things,’ Bobby soon becomes chummy with a Big Apple couple, Rad (Parker Posey), who turns out to be the owner of a model agency, and her high-flying hubby Steve (Paul Schneider), a well-to-do producer, the two putting Bobby in touch with the ‘who’s who’ on the Hollywood scene, inviting him to ‘classified’ film screenings and other such exclusive events. All the while complications between Vonnie and her ‘mystery man’ ensue — this is, after all, a Woody Allen flick — Bobby seizing this opportunity to romance the girl of his dreams, these affections instantly reciprocated. And before too long, Bobby — tired of the shallow showbiz arena — asks Vonnie to marry him and move back to his hometown in New York, where they can lead a simple life in Greenwich Village, free from the hustle and bustle of the Hollywood fast-lane. Trouble is, Vonnie’s ex-lover soon re-enters, this time ready and raring to go, with grand plans of courting Vonnie, which ultimately puts her in a very tough bind — whom to wed: her mogul ex (who she obviously still carries a torch for) or the gentlemanlike Bobby (the man who’d swept her off her feet).

'I can spot a phoney from a mile away.'
‘I can spot a phoney from a mile away.’

Whose proposal does Vonnie accept? Well, let’s just say that the heartbroken Bobby winds up back in NYC where he starts working for his offhandedly-unethical gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), who has somehow elbowed his way into owning and operating a nightclub, Club Hangover. Functioning as the venue’s impresario, Bobby displays signs of real promise (showing natural ambition and a knack for all things managerial), eventually repositioning the locale as one of hottest spots in town, renaming it to the more stylish-sounding Les Tropiques, which, in turn, attracts the fancy-pants socialite crowd. Finally, things begin to look up for our once inconsolable hero: Bobby meets the stunning Veronica (Blake Lively) — a friend of Rad and Steve’s who shares a similar name to that of his past lover, ‘Vonnie’ — eventually marrying her after she falls pregnant. So all is good and well for the newlyweds, Bobby happy with his loving wife and thriving career … until the day Vonnie walks back into his life, her mere presence making waves, reigniting old feelings and turning Bobby’s world upside-down.

While no Midnight in Paris (2011), Café Society — a term that literally means ‘beautiful people’ — is an above-average effort from the 80-year-old filmmaker whose overall career has been a bit of a see-saw. Filled with trademark Woody Allenisms — jazzy Big Band sounds, plenty of dialogue and a dreamy Spring/Autumn romance — Café Society is a tad cliché — and for anyone who has ever seen a Woody Allen pic, it’s business as per usual — but that doesn’t mean Allen’s screenplay isn’t witty, meditative and bittersweet, with Allen paying homage to an era he clearly admires — the flick populated by the people he’s met and places he’s been — Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby perhaps a surrogate for an anxious young Allen, about to take his first big step into a world of bright lights and rolling cameras. There are aspects of the narrative that are quite paradoxical, too, possibly reflecting facets of Allen’s own complicated journey, Café Society being the writer-director’s most personal film in years. ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,’ Bobby at one point ironically states, this maybe a belief that Allen wholeheartedly shares.

Blake Lovely!
Blake Lovely!

Needless to say, it’s evident that Allen knows a thing or two about sweet romance — how does the saying go: the heart wants what it wants — the film’s centerpiece love-triangle not favoring one character over the other, each made worthy of loving and being loved in return. This period-piece romance is wonderfully realized by the steely performances of leads Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, with Stewart — who, in my book, can do no wrong — fashioning a fun-loving, magnetic dame with real world perspective, while Eisenberg plays to his strengths as ‘smooth operator’ Bobby, the 33-year-old a nice fit for our slightly neurotic protagonist (who exhibits some of Allen’s own idiosyncrasies). Additionally, Steve Carell, Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011), makes the role of big-league mover and shaker Phil Stern his own, a larger-than-life movie exec who’s on a first name basis with the Hollywood cream of the crop — so, there’s obviously a tone of name dropping … did someone just say Ginger Rogers?

Elsewhere, Jeannie Berlin, Inherent Vice (2014), and Ken Stott, The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014), provide some solid laughs as Bobby’s constantly bickering folks, Rose and Marty, whereas Corey Stoll, Ant-Man (2015), is decent as Ben Dorfman, Bobby’s hoodlum brother who genuinely believes that violence is the answer to all of the world’s problems, Ben’s morally shady actions generating weighty discussion amongst our frontman’s Bronx residing parents and siblings, with questions of principles, beliefs and the practicability of religion heatedly (and often humorously) debated — however, while insightful and amusing, this ethical ambivalence is a tad jarring, these scenes feeling as though they’ve been tacked on from another film. Also, lookout for Anna Camp, Pitch Perfect (2012), as wholesome Jewish-girl-turned-hooker Candy whom Bobby awkwardly tries to bed (the pair’s brief comical exchange turning out to be one of the flick’s funnier moments), and then there’s Woody Allen himself who provides authorial narration to proceedings, this voice-over perhaps deepening Allen’s connection to the overall material, even if it’s an aspect the film could have honestly done without.

'Fancy a drive?'
‘Fancy a drive?’

But let’s be frank, it’s the vintage aesthetic that truly shines brightest, acclaimed Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Apocalypse Now (1979), painting a picture-perfect portrait of a post-Depression USA: the sunny hues and rich ambers authentically capture the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood (heck, even the lavish California architecture is spot on), whilst New York’s never-ending party scene is rendered with vibrancy and sparkle, the nostalgic visuals reflecting the luster and flamboyancy of a bygone era. A sheer optical treat, Café Society sees Allen and Storaro venture into uncharted territory, the film (surprisingly) the pair’s first to be shot digitally — but let’s hope this isn’t the last (for either artist) as Café Society could very well be Allen’s most stunning feature to come out this past century (or maybe even ever).

Running at a mere 96 minutes, Café Society could have easily spent more time delving deeper into the psyche of its characters, exploring their innermost workings. Be that as it may, the feature is still a higher-than-middling effort from filmmaker Allen, Café Society a visually robust tale about love shelved and upturned, one that harkens back to the heyday of cinema. While the ambiguous ending is sure to frustrate, it’s these vague subtleties that ultimately leave an impression. As suggested in the film’s poster art — which sees the profile of a smiling stylized woman with a single honeyed tear running down her face — I guess ‘love,’ while certainly magical and mirthful, often comes with a drop of melancholy, a wistful yearning or regret that (for some) lives on in the heart and mind for the rest of days … this cumbersome notion (sadly) one with which I can relate.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Café Society is released through eOne Films Australia