The director has delivered a flirty, light, good-looking film that also resurrects some of the Woody Allen charm.
From the first few bars of 1930s jazz filling the theater, Café Society reminds its audience that they are entering Woody Allen’s world. These days there will be plenty of people, for various though often fairly singular reasons, who won’t buy a ticket. Occasionally those people don’t miss out on much. It isn’t a crime if Irrational Man or Magic in the Moonlight were ignored, though a die-hard fan will find something worthwhile in each. Café Society is not one of those: the director has delivered a flirty, light, good-looking film that also resurrects some of the Woody Allen charm that doesn’t always come out to play in top form.
Café Society is the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young New Yorker who moves out to L.A. to try and make it in the movie business. Through his agent-to-the-stars uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), Bobby begins to hobnob with Hollywood’s elite and quickly falls for a young employee of Phil’s, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Vonnie shows Bobby the sights of the city, allowing for Allen to recreate a world in which he clearly aches to have lived. If what Paul says in Midnight in Paris is true, that nostalgia is “a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present,” Allen plants that flaw in his Café Society audience, creating such a lovely escape from the pain and challenges outside the theater.
The film is so wonderfully enjoyable, from its look to its old school Allen humor, that the only disappointment boils down to a failure to meet expectation in the chemistry between the leads. Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby does an impeccable job in the role that Allen would have played had the movie come out in 1979. Eisenberg rests his fists upon his hip and his fingers manically move with pent up anxiety as only someone who has watched their fair share of Allen’s movies would know to incorporate into their performance. Kristen Stewart as the love interest, Vonnie, continues her streak of doing a fine job convincing people she is better than Twilight. Yet their nervous energies bounce off each other in a disconnecting way. Perhaps it is that it is undeniable to make the comparison to how Allen and Keaton played off each other or how Farrow was always an equal counterpart to Allen. Maybe it is that only when Allen is transferring a relationship happening off the page, one which he is a part of, that the relationship which appears on the page sizzles the way he was able to do time and time again. Since he has limited himself to staying off screen, he has created boisterous relationships, superficial ones, touching ones, but he’s yet to captivate the lived-in quality of Alvy and Annie or Isaac and Mary. Here, not much exists to make one pine to see Bobby and Vonnie on screen together, to watch their love unfurl. Eisenberg may be at his most charming, but there is little to suggest it has fully worked on Vonnie.
This, however, could be the point, could be a reflection of the skill Allen has at crafting female characters better than most of his male contemporaries through the years. From the beginning, there is another man in Vonnie’s life, and his presence remains throughout the course of the film. She doesn’t fall head over heels for Bobby – there is never a question that the boy is more smitten than she. Vonnie isn’t the pawn on Bobby’s chessboard that he wishes she would be. He is not controlling her narrative – Allen is. In Allen’s hands, Vonnie is neither the cold, distant object of male affection nor the barnacle-like, hideously dependent girlfriend. Vonnie is only a woman trying to make the best, most logical choices for herself.
When the film leaves Vonnie and Bobby to catch their breath and jumps to the rest of the ensemble, Allen fully allows for some of his most famed tropes and topics to come to life once more. Jeannie Berlin as Bobby’s punchy mother Rose is primed for the role and mouths some of the best Woody Allen existential one liners in recent years. Corey Stoll (Ben), Sari Lennick (Evelyn) and Ken Stott (Marty) fill out the typical Allen-created New York Jewish family, each with enough personality to leave the audience craving a film per family member. Blake Lively enters the second half as an alternative love interest, Veronica, and sells her “I find Jews exotic” speech with the most charm and humor she’s exhibited on screen to date. Each not only makes their bid for supporting MVP but also reminds the audience how remarkable Allen’s team is at casting each and every role.
The casting department is far from the only deserving mention for the crew. The costuming and set design are swoon-inducing, sweeping the audience away to 1930s Hollywood. Never before have nude shades been so alluring. Later, as the film travels to New York, a skyline sunset shot stresses that now Allen is at home and we are lucky enough to tag along for the trip as he enters swanky nightclubs and the wilderness of Central Park. Each scene is exquisite; shadows become as stunning as the people casting them. While it might not be as superbly written as Midnight in Paris, Café Society surpasses the 2011 hit in its quality of filmmaking. It transports its audience into Allen’s fantasy world, one filled with witty, radiant people and a refreshing, earnest hopefulness. If you let yourself visit, you just might not want to leave.