Synopsis: During the 1930s, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is a Bronx-born kid who travels to California with hopes of making it big in the film industry. Lucky for him he has an uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), who works in the movie business and knows all the right people.
Bobby is quickly introduced to the who’s who around town and finds himself first fascinated, then disillusioned with Hollywood. Along the way he makes friends with some fascinating women (Blake Lively, Parker Posey), falls in love with Phil’s sweet secretary (Kristen Stewart) and gets into trouble with his nightclub owner/mobster brother (Corey Stall), all while navigating the successes and pitfalls of attempting fame in Old Hollywood.
Café Society 8.0
eyelights: the cast. the setting. the cinematography.
eyesores: the triteness of some of the dialogues. the triteness of the plot.
“Live every day like it’s your last. And one day you’ll be right.”
Another year, another Woody Allen film. Like clockwork, the prolific auteur has released yet another in a growing body of work – his 47th full length directorial effort in 51 years – and that doesn’t even take into account the short films, television work, theatre work, acting gigs and all his other creative endeavours.
Clearly, he likes to keep busy.
Of course, he also has a sort of formula, which will immediately be recognizable to his fans. But they love him for it: though he doesn’t explore and expand nearly as much as he did in his early years (when he even delved into science fiction!), the level of quality he continues to serve up is truly remarkable.
With ‘Café Society’, he returns to the 1930s to tell the story of Bobby Dorfman, a young New Yorker who goes to Hollywood seeking work with his uncle Phil, a big shot talent agent. There he meets Vonnie, and finds himself in a love triangle before returning back to New York and becoming a successful club owner.
This one’s narrated by Woody Allen, which is a real joy because it gives him a presence even though he’s not on screen. He provides insight into the scenes, both in Hollywood, with all the inside knowledge and name-dropping, and in New York, with a look at the personalities populating Bobby’s club, Les Tropicales.
He also tells us about Bobby’s older brother Ben, and of his rise in the NYC underworld; it serves as a shortcut to provide backstory and move the main plot forward. Arguably, the film wouldn’t hold together without this narration, because many scenes do require some explanation. But Allen does it well.
Although we’re faced with another love triangle, ‘Café Society’ fleshes out Bobby’s family dynamics, with his mom being a more typical Jew, his dad being an atypical working class Jew, his sister being married to a bookish intellectual, and, of course, Ben – whose illegal shenanigans affect them all in the end.
Allen truly captured that magic moment when people fall in love, that sort of puppy dog cuteness that makes everything lovely; Bobby isn’t head over heels, but he really likes this girl and just wants to spend more time with her. So he’s not possessive, jealous or demanding; instead he’s patient and understanding.
Frankly, they’re truly adorable together.
Though he often gets on my nerves, I really enjoyed Eisenberg as a Woody Allen surrogate. I felt as though he had studied the Woody Allen character, because even simple things like putting his hands on his hips emulate the master. I could wholly imagine Allen there, in his stead, for about 90-95% of the time.
And given how many people have tried and failed miserably, that’s quite impressive.
Kristen Stewart was excellent in the first part of the film, but I didn’t buy the more glamourous version of Vonnie; she’s still good, but it was a bit ill-fitting. I felt that she should have played it more sophisticated, if only to justify Bobby’s contempt for the changes in her; as it stand, it seems mostly superficial.
The rest of the cast is fairly decent. Steve Carell naturally gets a fair bit of screentime as Bobby’s uncle. He’s pretty good, though he has a moment of shoutiness that made me wonder if it was in character, or merely a slip. On the weak end was Blake Lively as Bobby’s spouse. Thankfully, not much is required of her.
Some of the dialogues felt awkward, merely quoting or referring to common expressions or accepted wisdoms and then throwing a spin on them; they didn’t have the freshness of Allen’s own witticisms. Is he running out of inspiration? I’m not sure, but I can safely say that he’s been much more clever than this.
Similarly, some scenes could have been refined.
For instance, there’s a fun -if overlong- one in which Bobby calls up a hooker, she arrives late, and tells him he’s her first client – ever. It’s on, it’s off, and it doesn’t end as either expected – partly because he pities her. But it was long enough that I thought the character would come back. She didn’t. Good idea, though.
I did love that the picture ended on a question mark, however, with Bobby and Vonnie separately drifting off in thought at their own respective New Year’s Eve parties. To me, it seemed as though both characters were contemplating their lives, wondering whether or not they’d made the right choices.
I liked that it wasn’t spoon-fed to us, but mostly that it’s the mark of a man in the later stages of his life who is likely wondering the very same thing about himself, and reconsidering what he’d been led to believe (i.e. the questions of life after death and the value of religion come up, as they have in his recent films).
In those moments, we’re getting intimate glimpses at Woody Allen.
Another interesting thing about Allen’s later-period films is how attractive they’ve become. He had already done wonders with ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Shadows and Fog‘ back in the day, but few others really caught my attention. In recent years, Allen has consistently taken the time to highlight his locations.
‘Café Society’ is no exception.
It’s a gorgeous-looking picture, with all the Hollywood landmarks looking absolutely pristine and majestic, as though they’d just been built or we’d traveled back in time. New York also looks good, especially Central Park and the interiors of some of the city’s oldest structures, but Movieland shines the brightest here.
Having said this, ‘Café Society’ is hardly a perfect picture. In fact, I met a few people who were disappointed with it. But I thought it was a strong -if familiar- Woody Allen effort and I know a lot of Allen fans who thoroughly enjoyed it. He may not be at the height of his powers, but he remains far more potent than most.
I totally look forward to his next effort.
Date of viewing: July 31, 2016