Woody Allen’s latest trifle, Café Society, continues to explore themes that obsess the writer director, namely, infidelity vs. loyalty, Hollywood vs. New York, Judaism vs. other religions, reason vs. muscle. The film also includes criminal activity, witty one-liners, copious name-dropping, delightful jazz music, and an older man dating a much younger woman.
Allen may have examined these same themes more seriously in better films—Crimes and Misdemeanors comes first to mind—but Café Society is not trying to be one of the director’s deeper, darker movies. It’s a pleasant diversion that showcases glamorous 1930s period costumes, beautiful set design and some fine performances.
Allen himself narrates this tale of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg effectively mimicking Allen), a young Jewish man from the Bronx who goes to Hollywood where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) works as an agent. Bobby gets a job running errands, and falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who works for Phil. But Vonnie has a boyfriend, and before long, Bobby is itching to return to New York. When he does, Café Society shifts gears, and focuses on Bobby’s work at a nightclub owned by his gangster brother, Ben (a droll Corey Stoll). As Bobby settles into a new life, he can’t stop thinking about the past.
The main story is fleshed out a bit with subplots involving Ben and other family members, but these bits mostly act as a clothesline for Allen’s patented shtick. Phil uses Ginger Rodgers and Joel McCrea as punchlines. There is some terrific comic banter between Bobby’s mother Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and her husband Walt (Ken Stott), as well as some humorous philosophizing by Bobby’s intellectual brother-in-law, Leonard (Stephen Kunken). There is also an early scene in which Bobby hires a prostitute, Candy (Anna Camp) that is both amusing and annoying. It goes on too long, even though it does offer a few smiles.
Allen’s film is only funny around its edges. The central element of Café Society is the romance that develops between Bobby and Vonnie. In their third film together, Eisenberg and Stewart display a chemistry that makes their relationship feel real, and not just a plot contrivance. A scene of the couple in Central Park, drinking wine, is wonderfully romantic, thanks in no small part to Vittoria Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography. That said, it’s not as iconic as that famous shot on the bench in Manhattan.
But it doesn’t have to be. When Vonnie and Bobby first meet, she talks about movie star homes vs. the small apartment she has that overlooks the ocean. The mansions in Beverly Hills are larger than life. Vonnie (and Bobby) agree that they prefer “life size” over larger than life.
Café Society is a modest, “life size” film.
Café Society opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.