Synopsis – In the 1930s, a Bronx native moves to Hollywood and falls in love with a young woman who is seeing a married man.
My Take – At the age of 80, actor/writer/director Woody Allen still remains one of the most interesting and insightful directors, whose films regardless of how they come off overall look great, have great soundtracks and he often knows how to get strong performances out of actors, at his best his writing was a fine mix of the hilarious, the poignantly dramatic and the thought-provoking. Woody Allen has always been mainly a storyteller, that to a clever one. General ‘cinema goers’ may not willingly accept his kind of films, but fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age will most certainly find enjoyment in this subtle take on different genres. Allen’s glory days were in the late 60s through to the early 90s, with the 70s and 80s (which saw masterpieces like ‘Annie Hall‘, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanours‘ and ‘Manhattan‘ for example) being particularly good decades. From mid-90s on wards he became hit and misses, with the odd gem like ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘Blue Jasmine’ but generally his glory days are long gone. This film, his 46th venture, which opened this year Cannes Film Festival, can be seen as one of his most personal films to date. This film is the Woody Allen as we know him: jazz music, New York, a socially awkward lead character, jokes about being Jewish, complicated love affairs – all those typical elements were there. Those are superficial elements, ingredients with which he cooks all sorts of dishes. In this film he revisits all of those at once. But you cannot ignore the fact that Woody Allen‘s career has always been kind of a hit and miss, considering the vast amount of films he makes. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. But when he did it right, it’s great. Unfortunately, this film is just good. But if you like Mr. Allen in general, you will probably like this latest offering. And certainly given the pathetic state of American film making, even Allen’s normal films offer more than almost any Hollywood blockbuster. The story is not even the most important part of the film – it’s about a love triangle set in 1930’s Hollywood and New York, and about people betraying their own ideals only because they get older. It’s entertaining, intelligent and elegant cinema.
The story follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy, sensitive and neurotic young man, who after being of working for his father Marty, a perpetually down on his luck jeweler, moves the Bronx to Hollywood in the 1930s to work for his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a high power Hollywood agent whose clients include Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Hedy Lamarr, Adolphe Menjou, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper and William Powell but not, incidentally, Maureen O’Sullivan. Phil gives Bobby a job performing menial tasks but he is far more interested in pursuing his uncle’s secretary Veronica “Vonnie” Sybil (Kristen Stewart), a comparatively down to earth secretary who would rather bask in the glow of the warm sun then in glitzy opulence. Bobby falls in love with Vonnie at first sight and his feelings for her grow steadily as they spend more time together. He is particularly attracted by her unassuming, down-to-earth manner, which serves as a sharp contrast to most people, male and female, that he meets in Hollywood. Vonnie finds him endearing but she gently rebuffs his awkward attempts to flirt with her since she is dating a journalist named Doug. Or so she says. Much of Bobby’s character develops between the intoxicating glamour of Hollywood and the provocative corruptibility of New York City. The dichotomy has a night and day quality that is mirrored by the earthy Vonnie and the glittering Veronica (Blake Lively) who appears later in the film. Large swaths of the film take place in the Big Apple, much of which concentrates on the foibles of Bobby’s sister (Sari Lennick), brother-in-law (Stephen Kunken) and mobster brother (Corey Stoll). Far from being unnecessary asides, these stories aptly meld into the film’s large themes: love, respect and regret. With the denseness of a novel and the light touch of Allen’s finest, a question that emerges; what is the director trying to tell us through this story? Bobby’s balance between the two cities he calls home mimics Woody Allen‘s long, illustrious trajectory as a member of the New York intelligentsia and a Hollywood staple. Perhaps he’s trying to tell us our problems may seem significant to us and every choice we make means another choice has been deferred, yet in the grand scheme of things, life is ultimately a comedy. The film seems rather straight forward, but it actually succeeds in creating genuine emotion. The story is simple but rarely dull, it is a long way from perfect but it did maintain interest. As a love triangle that pulls at each character’s emotions. But what I find attracting in the screenplay and script is the sense of an everlasting story. This is of course about the oldest story in the world, revisited, and – maybe unsurprisingly – Woody Allen has no magic wand on hand to make all the heartache in this film go away. The love entanglements leave nobody very happy, and no amount of superficial glitz and glamour can hide that. It’s a strong contrast with two ordinary and non-glamorous Jewish couples from Bobby’s family back in New York, who moan about their spouses all the time, but stick with them and seem to be content in some real way – with lives that are so much less complicated – and far more decent – than those lived in Hollywood. When the film ends, you feel as if it could go on and on. I liked the reiterated line: “What are you thinking?” – It was an excellent decision to have it repeated throughout, in many conversations with many characters. Overall, the written work is tightly book-ended. The subplot concerning Ben is very effective in that it demonstrates in a mostly comedic fashion how dangerous he is. Although his mother Rose tries to deny it, the entire family knows that he is a gangster but they underestimate him. This is best seen when his sister Evelyn asks him to speak to her aggressive neighbor and said neighbor winds up buried in cement with a hole in his head. Ben is convicted of murder and executed, though not before breaking his mother’s heart by converting to Christianity. This is a hilarious development which delivers some of the biggest laughs in the entire script. At its core, this film is about love. But there’s more to it.
In some way I feel like this is a film about Hollywood, about how boring it is to be involved in the middle of the industry. Each character of this film, particularly Bobby and Phil both are looking for some way or thing where they can escape this over glamorized and pretentious world. Unfortunately, they were looking for the same thing. However, there are some aspects from this film that in my opinion is bad. Men are described in terms of their characters and complications, while women are still described in terms of their beauty and their effect on said men. When Blake Lively‘s character motherhood becomes the butt of an exchange between two men, about how women who become mothers devote way too much time to their children (and ultimately not enough to their husband); it’s a sour note that reminds us that Bad Allen is always there, underneath. There are some sub-plots that just seem out of field. Woody Allen is trying to connect a lot of things to the main plot, but there are too many sub-plots. Some characters have no place in the film. Characters will do something that’s a bit weird in order to make things romantic. There’s also a minor continuity problem too. Surprise comes from the film providing the honeyed cinematography by V. Storaro which uses silhouette, graphic compositions and glowing close ups in an often genuinely breathtaking manner. The music is also great; it’s jazzy and a bit quirky sometimes. Even though it’s a bit annoying at some point because there’s some scene in the film where the music is always playing in the background, it was meant to be a score but it’s a bit annoying because it’s too long. I love the performances in this film, especially Jesse Eisenberg. He’s still the same, awkward, and looking like someone that’s very naive. But in this film he’s a bit different, there’s more to his performance. And I think Woody Allen has found the perfect person for his upcoming films. Kristen Stewart’s sad eyes, throaty delivery and slightly heartbreaking aura make her almost interesting, ad an easy chemistry between her and her third-time co-star Jesse Eisenberg (after American Ultra & Adventureland). Steve Carell‘s awesome natural amiability allows us to more easily welter in Phil’s more unsavory character decisions which includes having his nephew wait in the waiting room of his office for weeks. He’s an agent but he lacks the boorishness of Ari Gold. He believes in what he’s selling, and given the way he name- drops by the poolside and the fondness industry insiders seem to have for him, you can tell he’s good at what he does. The film also features strong performance from Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken and Ann Camp. On the whole, ‘Café Society’ is a clever, sweet, funny and simple tale of love at first sight, and though it comes across as tragically predictable, it’s wonderful to look at. Woody Allen has provided a fairly enjoyable take on the romantic genre, with some genuine performances, humor and a story that appears endless.
Directed – Woody Allen
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 96 minutes