For better or worse, there’s only one Woody Allen. The master of that dry, self-deprecating New York wit is back with Café Society, a film that strikes me as possibly one of his most personal — as it serves as a kind of love letter to two things Allen clearly cares deeply about – old movies and jazz.
The film opens, we’re told, in “the 1930s”; although after a little research it seems to be in – or at least close to – 1934. Young Bronx native Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) blows into Hollywood with no real plan and knowing no one in town except his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Thing is, Phil happens to be a power agent to the stars, and Bobby’s family have been in touch in the hopes that Phil can sling some kind of job Bobby’s way. Despite his misgivings, Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy. It’s a pretty crummy job, but at least it’s a start. It also allows Bobby to be around Phil’s attractive secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). After period of hanging out as friends, Bobby finally plucks up the courage to seek something more. Vonnie however rebuffs him, as she already has a boyfriend. But when a series of one-sided conversations reveal who that boyfriend really is, Bobby is in for the shock of his life.
Allen essentially splits the film into two halves. The first, set in Los Angeles, focuses on Bobby and Vonnie and the choices they make in their relationship. The second half is set in New York, and chronicles the fallout from those choices. Maybe a little oddly, the “new world” city of LA is depicted as staid and bound up in a faux morality; whereas “old world” NYC is shown as a place of freedom, albeit with a dark edge – but then, would you expect anything else from Allen.
The script bristles with Allen’s trademark wit (a particular one-liner involving a bottle of wine is hilarious); although it does occasionally (notably in the second stanza) drift into some pretty dark territory. More importantly, he draws a compelling portrait of a decidedly unconventional relationship. That’s supported by a bevy of subsidiary characters who add depth, humour and nuance to the piece. Even though it spans several years, the film never drags (although I think the editing might have been a bit over-zealous at one point). In the second half particularly, the episodic nature of the script requires some filling-in by the audience. The film’s headlong rush ends in a somewhat enigmatic – though brilliantly handled – climax, a little reminiscent (in tone, not in content) to the ending of Blue Jasmine.
Film buffs will appreciate the many old movie references (quite apart from the script’s name-dropping the who’s-who of 1930s cinema from Paul Muni to Judy Garland), while romantics will surely buy into the movie’s central theme of unrequited love.
Everything looks great thanks to DOP Vittorio Sotraro (note the ochre tint to the LA scenes, contrasted with the steely blues of the New York section) and production designer Santo Loquasto (a regular Allen collaborator) who recreates the period wonderfully. That’s underscored by the musical backing, which features plenty of compositions by Rogers & Hart, as well as contributions from Bennie Goodman and Count Basie; and performances by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks.
Jesse Eisenberg (American Ultra) is excellent as Bobby, adeptly conveying the character’s growth over the course of the film. As has become something of the norm with Woody Allen films, he also seems to be channelling Allen’s mannerisms at times – though in this case, so too does Steve Carell (The Big Short) as Uncle Phil. Kristen Stewart (The Clouds of Sils Maria) continues to make interesting choices in her post-Twilight career, and does a fine job as to object of Bobby’s affection. The film however is given spark by many of the smaller roles, including Stephen Kunken (Bridge of Spies) as Bobby’s nihilist brother-in-law (who gets some of the best lines), Blake Lively (The Shallows) as a New York socialite and Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) as Bobby’s shady brother, Ben.
Although Café Society may not be up there with the likes of Annie Hall in the Woody Allen pantheon, it’s a brisk, witty and thoroughly enjoyable night at the movies. While I admit that, as a fan, I probably got more out of it than others might, there is a whole lot to like about this nostalgic, yet surprisingly contemporary, comedy.
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewert, Blake Lively, Steve Carell
Release Date: 20 October 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television