Writer/director Woody Allen takes us back to the 1930s in Café Society, and just as he did in Midnight In Paris, he remembers those bygone times with sun-soaked idyllic opulence and grandeur. There’s nary a word about the Great Depression or the upcoming world war, save for an offhand comment about Hitler. This is okay because the protagonists inhabit a surreal world that imbues a sense of nostalgia and purity, and the movie is lush and vivid and engaging because of it.
Allen also succeeds in providing a humorous and dramatic story that has some unexpected twists and turns. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby, an ambitious twenty-something who escapes his father’s jewelry business by moving to Hollywood. His plan is to get a job with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a name-dropping agent to the stars. Soon Bobby is doing well at work and falling in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who unfortunately for him has a boyfriend. The second half of the film follows Bobby back to his hometown in the Bronx as he runs a nightclub with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll).
There’s always a neurotic lead in a Woody Allen movie (sometimes played by Allen himself), and Eisenberg handles the responsibilities well. It’s a difficult task because the character has to be funny, flawed and sympathetic, which isn’t an easy trifecta to pull off. Eisenberg will not win an Oscar here the way Cate Blanchett did for Blue Jasmine, but he also isn’t as bad as, say, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity.
What’s more, Café Society is pretty consistently funny, and the dramatic elements work well enough to keep us interested throughout, though there is a tiresome love triangle that lingers a bit too long. Allen doesn’t appear in the film, but his voice is heard as the narrator. This is not the first time Allen has narrated one of his own films without starring in it (Radio Days, 1987), but it’s certainly the first time he’s done so in such a sluggish and disinterested way. Two reasons to use voiceover narration are to set the stage for the plot and fill in continuity gaps in the story, and both of those reasons are in play here. If only Allen spoke with more urgency and conviction rather than in an emotionless third-person authorial way.
Thankfully Allen, at the ripe young age of 80, is on top of his game in all other regards. His recurring auteur themes of infidelity, religion, morality and forbidden love are all in play here, and it remains fascinating to watch him evolve in terms of how he views each subject. Repeatedly, he continues to allow logic to win out above all else, succinctly removing the desires of the heart for the sake of practicality. Love and prurient lust are omnipresent, but they’re tempered with the coda of characters asking, “What’s actually best for me?” and then acting accordingly. After more than 50 years of filmmaking, Allen isn’t afraid to stray from the standard “happy” ending, and he remains a compelling writer and director (in part) because of it.
Café Society is good Woody Allen, not great, which is fine. In a summer of sequels and adaptations, and at a time when original story ideas are few and far between, “good” is good enough.
Cafe Society Dir. Woody Allen; writ. Woody Allen; feat. Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott (PG-13)
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.