With Woody Allen, a consummate New Yorker, making a movie about a New York man trying to find his dream life in the LA of the 1930s before becoming disillusioned with the city, one might expect Café Society to be an acerbic dismissal of the Hollywood/California lifestyle. In fact, Woody’s latest effort is a far kinder look at the west coast, bathing it in a soft inviting light, even whilst poking gentle fun at it. In setting up this tone, Allen paves the way for his zippiest and most purely enjoyable film since 2011’s wonderful Midnight in Paris, balancing an array of characters and subplots with a deft touch and his trademark wit.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the thwarted Hollywood arrival Bobby Dorfman. Lured out west by promises of big things in the movie industry and the fact that his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is an influential agent, he struggles to make any headway. Phil is busy to the point where it seems like he’s deliberately avoiding his nephew, and Bobby only gets by thanks to the donations of his gangster older brother Benny (Corey Stoll). Eventually, Phil finds time to see him, and bestows upon him the job of errand boy. While Bobby might not find the work fulfilling, it does allow him to attend Phil’s lavish parties and meet the enchanting Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), with whom Bobby falls immediately in love.
It’s refreshing to see how quickly Bobby learns to fit in amongst the Beverly Hills elite, Allen eschewing a possible fish out of water comedy. Instead, he explores the more interesting theme of how the sneeringly smug ideals of youth give way to reality. Bobby and Vonnie both like to laugh at the silly parties and houses of the stars, but the moment they get offered access to that world, they jump on the opportunity with enormous enthusiasm. Allen doesn’t frame this shift as a ‘gotcha’ to Bobby and Vonnie; their decisions are completely logical and show a subtle and well handled maturing of both characters.
If this all sounds a little heavy, rest assured that Café Society is also incredibly entertaining, despite a slight pacing slump early in the third act. It may not be as funny as the very best Allen comedies, but the laughs are very much there, and a scene involving Bobby and an insecure prostitute is as close to a 70s/80s Allen sequence as we’ve had in the last decade or so. The various plots and subplots are all very energetic, and the Bobby/Vonnie courtship at the centre showcases the easy chemistry that Eisenberg and Stewart share.
Eisenberg proves to be perfectly cast in the lead role, doing an excellent job at the obligatory Woody Allen impression, complete with subtly hilarious physical comedy, of all male Allen leads but also bringing his own unique brand of arrogance necessary for making Bobby believable. Kristen Stewart is more than a match for Eisenberg as Vonnie, literally luminous the first time we see her. Stewart ensures that Vonnie is far more than just a love interest, imbuing her with a visibly rich inner life and all the little unhappinesses that come with thwarted ambitions.
Steve Carell has never been more physically imposing than he is here as Uncle Phil, filling frames with his body and making Eisenberg and Stewart look minuscule in the scenes they share with him. Almost inevitably, he gets the film’s biggest laugh, but Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin are consistently the funniest performers as Bobby’s parents. Their cramped but loving home serves as Café Society’s anchor, a cosy constant between gorgeous Californian villas and hip Manhattan nightclubs. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro changes his style to suit each city, and the result is one of Allen’s most visually striking films.
LA is bathed in an orange-yellow glow of unreality, with New York feeling much sharper and grittier. Working with Storaro, who filmed Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, Allen has composed some really striking moments here, from a conversation conducted mainly in silhouette, to a beautiful series of shots as the film reaches its end. That the 47th film by an 80 year old filmmaker can still showcase such ambitions is not exactly a surprise, given that the filmmaker in question is Woody Allen, but proves that there’s plenty of inspiration left in this most prolific of directors.