Woody Allen’s Café Society takes us on a thrilling trip to the highs and lows of 1930s America.
A tradition that has by now been well-established requires that upon release of a new Woody Allen movie, you have to claim that Allen’s films have become formulaic, soulless, and, in brief: dull. This tradition demands to be observed by hobby writers and professional film critics alike. Fortunately, like quite a few of well-established traditions, you can reject it without any loss—and in fact, you should.
Allen’s new film, Café Society, takes us back to the 1930s. Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a disoriented young adult from New York City, is a prototypical Woody Allen character—Jewish, socially awkward, and terribly lost in this terribly complicated world (“Dorfman” might very well be a telling name here). With little more than an endearing amount of naivety under his belt, he leaves his family in New York and goes to Hollywood, hoping to be given employment by his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a bigshot talent agent. While his uncle’s liberal interpretation of nepotism lands Bobby no more than a part-time job as an errand boy, his fall into reality is softened by his encounter with Phil’s secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Young Bobby falls deeply in love with her, completely oblivious to the fact that Veronica has an affair with Phil—and that the latter is considering to leave his wife for her.
The scene is set for a classic, Allenesque love triangle—and sure enough, the rest of Café Society delivers just what you would expect in terms of confusions, awkward conversations, and moments that make you feel truly happy about being merely a spectator of, rather than a character in, the turn of events. – “Oh, but he doesn’t know that he knows that her and him…!” – Yes, we’ve seen it before, but it’s so much fun to follow Bobby (wonderfully portrayed by Eisenberg) through the twists and turns of the story that it simply doesn’t matter.
And what’s more, Allen manages the feat to make his film feel actually fresh, despite the routine sad-hearts-narrative at its core. This is because Café Society does not focus on its protagonists and their woeful romantic endeavors alone. Allen’s latest movie is filled to the brim with nostalgic impressions of America in the 1930s. Clichés fuse with homages fuse with historical inspiration fuses with social criticism to an extent that is thrilling and that, at times, feels genuinely novel. From East coast to West coast and back, we follow Bobby on a story that contrasts Jewish middle-class culture with the pool parties of L.A.’s rich and famous, but that also alludes to some of the dark turns of life on Sunset Boulevard: Young women (and men) who either have their hopes and aspirations crushed and learn to settle for less—or to betray their own ideals in order to get to the top. Kristen Stewart’s character is a case in point, and Stewart – it has to be said without any irony – shows a great ability to portray the anguish connected with this decision.
That is not to say that Allen’s latest film is a foray into the territory of heavy-spirited, Loach-style drama. Quite on the contrary, Café Society, in keeping with Allen’s trademark blend of heartache and happiness, is a very funny movie. Yet, for all its joking about the droll cruelties of the society it portrays, there is also a sense of its actually cruel cruelties. Through a side-narrative about Bobby’s brother, a mafia member, Allen intersperses the main story with a number of killing scenes. And when Bobby decides to have sex with a prostitute, the bizarre dynamics between the two are hilarious only until it becomes apparent that she is a would-be actress who has fallen so low that she would do anything for money. These notions that there is something wrong with the “cafe society”, and in ways that go beyond the juicy gossip found in the tabloids, give Café Society an unexpected depth.
Of course, one could reproach Allen’s script that the occasional, mild elements of social criticism are just that: occasional, mild elements. The film would also have profited if Allen had dared to break out of his standard 90-minutes format in order to flesh out his characters a little more. Last but not least, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that he seems to have thrown in the mafia story merely for the fascination with this milieu, as he fails to connect it to the main plot in a satisfying way. But those are points of criticism that seem almost irrelevant when regarding the most important facts: Woody Allen is back with a fun, new and novel film—and, at 80 years of age, he is as clever as he ever was. If that’s not enough for you, there’s movie stars and the mafia. What’s not to love?
Café Society (US 2016). Directed and written by Woody Allen. Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro. Starring Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively and Kristen Stewart. 96 min.
Photos used in the illustration (from left to right): “Old Hollywood Glamour” by Tela Chhe, licensed under CC-BY-2.0; “The old Hollywood sign” by Alan Light (CC-BY-2.0); “Amanda Fiori(Mafia Romano) – Hetalia” by Ricardo 清介 八木 (CC-BY-2.0).