It’s that time again – a Woody Allen film hits town. Two things cross your mind: will it be as funny and clever as his best, and what in hell made him think it was okay to seduce and marry his adopted daughter? Once you push those conflicting thoughts out of your head, you decide whether it’s an evening worth paying the entrance price.
I go to see anything set in Los Angeles because I know the place so intimately and enjoy spotting streets and art deco bars. And if it’s a period piece – of which most of LA lends itself so well – it’s a double bonus, I get to see veteran automobiles, too, as big as buses. I’ve reached an age where nostalgia is a pleasant retreat from life’s vicissitudes, except in the case of Scotland’s too long delayed reformation, for which I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Woody Allen has led a charmed vocation; forever signing up with new studios on a three picture deal, and having the boss say, “Make what you want, Woody, just tell me when it’s finished.” Then again, you don’t reach Allen’s level of output if you’re somebody who defers to bosses. You acquire a steely negotiating attitude – “Okay, I’ll sign up, but the studio doesn’t rewrite the script, and I get final cut.”
This time around Allen gives us a story worth telling. It’s a gentle ride for the most part, about painful love, love lost, and yearning, replete with a few guys getting bumped off to liven up the proceedings.
The question littering the story is, what if? We all make good and bad decisions in our lives, but some make a serious error of judgment that alters their life forever. They learn how to live with it, and make the best of it.
Café Society is surprisingly ambitious for a late period Woody Allen. There are a number of stories interwoven around the main one of star crossed lovers, and Allen handles the complexities deftly. We follow Allen’s surrogate self from being a nice but nerdy, wide-eyed Jewish kid from Brooklyn in the 1930s, who just happens to have an uncle gloriously successful as a Hollywood agent, goes there and gets a job in his uncle’s agency, only to fall in love with his secretary, and grow up pretty fast.
Jesse Eisenberg is not my kind of leading man; those round shoulders, the skinny frame, a physicality that is painfully awkward never graceful, don’t help when he plays older than he is, and he’s supposed to have reached maturity. I found it difficult suspending disbelief, especially accepting him as a sophisticated night club owner.
As Bobby Dorfman, Eisenberg grapples with some of Allen’s nebby mannerisms and halting speech patterns, the neurotic guy we’ve come to know and expect from Allen’s central characters, whether himself in the lead, or another.
Once your ear gets attuned to his impersonation you accept that somehow Allan can’t relate to his own material unless he’s at its very centre in some manner or way.
Newly arrived in Tinseltown, Bobby gets a menial gofer job thanks to his hot-shot agent uncle, Phil, (Steve Carell), and promptly falls for Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Although she insists that she has a boyfriend, Vonnie continues to grow closer to Bobby.
That boyfriend, it turns out, is Bobby’s own uncle Phil, yes the very same big time agent. Complication follows complication. Phil keeps telling Vonnie he will leave his wife, just not right away, not today, maybe tomorrow. “I’ve been married to her twenty-five years, goddammit! She’s a wonderful woman!” Vonnie is torn: She’s falling for this young man, but she does love her older paramour, too, he’s one hellova sugar daddy.
The twisting trysts are handled with great sensitivity by Allen. You wonder if he’s telling us a part-biographical tale, or only exhibiting how smart he is at observing the fickle ways of shallow Hollywood types.
There are two stars head and shoulders above the rest, one is Kristen Stewart and the other the eminent cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro, (The Conformist, Reds, Apocalypse Now). The film’s look is a delight, warm reds and browns everywhere, sepia tones punctuated by powder whites. You can tell Allen is really thinking about visual storytelling despite every scene crammed with dialogue, and Storaro’s always elegant lighting makes even the most basic close up and two-shot shimmer.
Eisenberg does the best he can with a physique that never really fills out when it should, back in New York, he with his family, married with a baby, surrounded by his grumpy old dad, and kvetching mother and aunts, plus his black sheep of a gangster brother.
There we learn that the Jewish faith does not believe in an after life, a void that has everybody worried about their mortal souls, and where they might go after death. I should add that out own Ken Stott, brings his luminous snozzle and gin gravel voice to the proceedings only just masking his strong Scots accent.
The strength of the film isn’t the occasional good gag from Allen, or some neat moments when we see human nature at work, but Kristen Stewart playing the indecisive lover of two quite different men.
That gift of a role has Stewart blow the other actors out the water. She gives us the great moments when we are entranced by her dilemma, when the camera moves in slowly to her face, her expression wracked with uncertainty. Vonnie’s indecision practically consumes her. If her performance doesn’t catch her a couple of good movies in her career trajectory nothing will. We really empathise with her predicament.
In the last act we are back in New York and here Allen finds it difficult holding our attention and the pace. My mind began to wander to earlier scenes, or check the background for familiar house and shops. The film plods blithely along, as if its creator were unsure where to focus. We see the corrosive effect of guilt on unloved ones — a subplot that recalls Crimes and Misdemeanors but never achieves the same gravity.
To sum up: lovely visuals, good to terrific performances, upbeat jazz music, and some gangster action to remind us it’s the era of Elliot Ness and Errol Flynn. There’s enough good moments in Café Society to have you buy that ticket and maybe take the wife or girlfriend along, but you leave the cinema wishing it was all just that bit better.
- Star rating: Three and a half
- Screenplay & Director: Woody Allen
- Cast: Jessie Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
- Cinematographer. Vittorio Storaro
- Duration: 96 minutes