Café Society does nothing else if not prove how capable and entertaining a filmmaker Woody Allen is, or was, or can be. If it was made in his ‘70’s or ’80 or even early ‘90’s heyday, his newest film might have been something of a classic or at least a lesser known gem in his vast filmography. Instead, it suffers from what all of his late period films have: fatigue and overfamiliarity. Because if you’ve seen a handful of Allen’s films, you’ve seen them all. Infidelity, a sweet-and-sour view of the past, neuroses, crime, morality, existential misery; all of the director’s trademarks, calling cards, and preoccupations are here on full display. But that doesn’t stop Café Society from being one of the more delightful films in the director’s career.
The film follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) the son of a Jewish jeweler from the Bronx as he moves out to Hollywood to make a career for himself, hoping to receive some help from his Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) a high powered agent. Phil sets Bobby up as his personal errand boy and Bobby soon falls in love with Phil’s assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). But there’s a wrinkle: Vonnie has a boyfriend.
What follows is a story of nostalgia and rosy illusions about the past that can bleed into and color the present, fitting for a film set in a past “Golden Age” that most look back one with perhaps too much reverence. It ends on an oddly touching and melancholy note, one that’s mostly unfamiliar (but not unprecedented) in Allen’s films. So often Allen’s films succumb to his pessimistic existentialism and nihilistic worldview that the tone can seem downright nasty or severe, with the artist looking at his characters like a disappointed, mean-spirited, but ultimately impotent God who sees no redeeming virtue in these people. But here, Allen seems to have more sympathy for his characters, still seeing how flawed humans can be and unable to see any way for those flaws to be overcome or remedied, but instead of contempt, this evokes sympathy in the case of Café Society, a kind of tragic understanding that comes close resembling love for these people he’s written.
And that’s possibly one of the best reasons to continue to see Allen’s newest films as they are released. He makes films so fast and frequently that the worldviews they express and the meanings they convey can change from film to film, almost with the filmmaker’s mood. Allen may not have matured as a filmmaker or as a person since the 1980’s, but he does transform and develop as an artist as he goes, and that makes him an interesting filmmaker, if not a great one.
The script is typical Woody Allen territory, as stated above, and it’s even somewhat lackluster at times, but he seems to be less a writer this time around and instead seems to emphasize his role as a director, an image maker. There’s a liveliness and a vibrancy that’s become a rarity in Allen’s films of late, even better ones like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. And his films have never looked better than this, relishing in the aesthetic pleasures of 1940’s Hollywood and New York. This is also thanks to legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, working with Allen for the first time, and the first time shooting digitally for both men. Storaro works within his and Allen’s existing palette to create truly sumptuous images even in the most unlikely of settings, the digital camera adding new textures and nuances to their styles.
The performances are all lovely and at their worst, competent. Eisneberg seems to be doing his best Woody Allen impression, so much so that I wonder whether the director is actively instructing his recent leading men to act like him as a kind of surrogate in parts that he’s now too old for, or if the actors are simply absorbing their director’s tics and mannerisms simply through exposure to him. Stewart gives a lovely, understated performance that benefits from her chemistry with Eisenberg (this is their third pairing after Adventureland and American Ultra), and Steve Carell is always delightful to see and has a few lines that almost make him a scene stealer.
Ultimately, this is fine film, a rollicking, entertaining jaunt from a filmmaker a bit past his prime but still able to entertain and make us think. The problem with Allen’s later films is they feel habitual, like he’s still making movies because he has to or can’t do anything else. They lack the spark of his best works, but as Café Society shows, even some of Allen’s lesser works can provide the kind of laughs and enjoyment that’s hard to find elsewhere.