I want to start this review by saying something I have said so many times in the past, but I can’t avoid mentioning frequently – I adore Woody Allen. I actually love him a lot more than many other cinephiles. I cannot think of many directors who have crossed so many boundaries of genre, theme, storyline and technique, and while he may not the very definition of restraint in terms of a career (but making a film almost every year for nearly five decades will do that to you), I think he is an extraordinarily talented filmmaker, and I always am excited for his films, and when he has a new one out each year, it becomes an annual event. His latest film, Café Society, plays exactly into the kind of film I like – a sweet and meaningful little period comedy about the early days of Hollywood.
Café Society sees Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) an idealistic young New Yorker moving to Hollywood in the 1930s to try and start a career there. His mother (the always wonderful and criminally underrated Jeannie Berlin) convinces her brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a powerful agent, to give his nephew a job and help him navigate through the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry. In Hollywood, Bobby encounters Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s secretary (and secret mistress) – and Bobby finds himself falling for the girl – but when things get complicated, they are driven apart and they go on their own separate paths. It may not be the most groundbreaking of stories, but it is certainly an entertaining one.
The promotion for Café Society seemed to imply that this was a romantic comedy – and while it certainly does have various shades of romance in the first two acts, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it traditionally romantic by any regard – in fact, this may be one of the most heartbreakingly unromantic films Allen has made, because it looks at the side of life where we fall in love with someone that we know we can’t have, for various reasons – and throughout Café Society, we expected so huge cliched outburst where the two former lovers finally get back together and live happily ever after – and to be honest, the fun and quirky tone of the film doesn’t lend itself to the fact that it has one of the more depressing (yet still utterly beautiful) final moments in Allen’s filmography. This is not the kind of film that dissuades one from pursuing something they feel strongly about (a lover, a job, a dream) – but it rather serves as the kind of film that plays towards those that have not achieved what they want, and it is essentially Allen making the statement that you must pursue whatever desire you may have, but if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean one needs to stop trying. In a way, Café Society romanticizes failure – Bobby goes out to Hollywood to get a job, fall in love and start a career in the arts – and he fails at all three, but even through failure, he still builds himself a somewhat happy life. This is what I love about Woody Allen – his films may seem simple on the outside, but they are certainly far more complex in their deeper meanings.
In terms of performances, I must say that Café Society is traditionally what we’d expect from Allen – some very talented performers juggling with the incredible dialogue that Allen has perfected throughout his long career. We have all heard of the Woody Allen Surrogate – the actor that plays the role that Allen himself would’ve played if the particular film was made a few decades ago – nearly all of his films have an actor standing in for Allen – and in Café Society, it is Jesse Eisenberg (working with Allen for a second time, after To Rome with Love). I know a lot of people are very critical about Eisenberg – he doesn’t have the natural charisma that many movie stars have – but he has the neurotic and frantic and wildly intellectual charm that fits into the ouevre of Woody Allen films perfectly. He may not give his most brilliant performance yet, but serving as the stand-in for Allen, he also manages to get some more complex work to do in this film that we don’t normally see from Eisenberg. Steve Carell replaced Bruce Willis in this film, and while I am not a fan of Willis at all, I also didn’t feel like Carell was suited for the role either – he didn’t come off as natural, and I didn’t see him as being particularly scary and intimidating as the character was implied to be. I try not to think of alternative casting options, but when you’re Woody Allen, you can get nearly anybody to be in your films, and previous collaborators like Alec Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson, Brian Cox or even Larry David would’ve been a much better choice to play the role. But both Eisenberg and Carell are overshadowed by Kristen Stewart, who is just incredible in this film – her character is deeply complex, interesting and goes through a radical change throughout the film. I still defend the fact that Stewart is an extraordinary actress who has been unfairly chastised for her participation in the Twilight films. Her career just continues to grow and develop into something wonderful, and her participation in some unique and interesting films with some brilliant directors can only help her case. It isn’t too late to jump onto the Kristen Stewart bandwagon, I assure you.
However, Café Society is not perfect in any regard, and I have to be a little negative about it for a few reasons. If we look at Café Society as an isolated film, distancing it from the people behind the camera, it is a pretty brilliant film, and if any other director made it, it would seem like an instant masterpiece, because it is just absolutely extraordinary. The problem is, Woody Allen made this film – and unfortunately, as much as I love Woody Allen, he has lost his edge. His films are too tame, and even something like Irrational Man, which was so dark in theme, was pretty sedate and calm. Woody Allen’s films are called comedies, but rather than being the outright hilarious, edgy and witty films of Annie Hall and Sleeper and Love & Death, they are amusing and lighthearted affairs that offer very little to actually laugh at. This isn’t a terrible thing – they aren’t bad films at all (and in terms of his recent output, which is essentially hit-and-miss, Café Society certainly is far more of a hit), I just wish Allen would make something edgy again. He still has it in him, I am sure of it. But I fear this increase in tame, quirky fare is representing a shift towards a more lazy Allen who just churns out cute little films to satisfy audiences and his own lust to constantly be working. I want Allen to shock us with something edgy, but I doubt he will. In terms of his entire filmography, Café Society is not a bad film, but it is certainly nothing compared to Allen in his peak.
Café Society is pretty great. It is the most beautifully shot Allen film in years (mainly due to the involvement of iconic cinematographer Vittorio Storraro) and it has some lovely performances from the cast. It is delightful fare, and while it isn’t groundbreaking, it is certainly wonderful in many regards. It is pure escapism, and I really thought it was wonderful. I do think fans of Allen’s period comedies will love this one as well, because even if it isn’t Allen at his best, it is still probably better than a lot of alternatives.