Woody Allen is the most prolific filmmaker of his generation, releasing practically one movie every year for the better part of 40 years. However, that prolificacy has a cost, as a number of Allen’s weaker efforts seem like they could be salvaged with just a little more time spent refining their scripts. Allen’s latest, Café Society, is another one of those weaker efforts, with some entertaining aspects that are underserved by a scattershot script that can’t ever find a through line as it bounces between New York and Los Angeles at some indiscriminate point in the 1930s. The end result feels like Allen took one half completed script and merged with another half completed script to construct a feature length script that was half completed.
The first half of Café Society centers round Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a New York Jew who has just transplanted to Hollywood in the heyday of the ‘30s hoping for his own shot at fame and fortune. His parents in New York, Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott), have arranged for him to meet with his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful Hollywood agent. After finding time in his busy schedule, Phil sets Bobby up with an entry level job at his agency and asks his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around Los Angeles. It doesn’t take long for Bobby to fall head over heels for Vonnie. However, she’s currently in a relationship with Bobby’s Uncle Phil in a love triangle that Allen has pretty much pulled straight from Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment.
After becoming disillusioned with Tinseltown, Bobby makes his way back to New York where he starts working a nightclub owned by his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a ruthless and brutal Jewish gangster. Their nightclub is one of the hottest spots in New York, though the empire built by Ben quickly comes crashing down as he’s forced to stand trial for the litany of offenses committed over the years. For the most part, Bobby has found his place in the world through occupying this stake in the popping nightclub, even going as far as to marry a model (Blake Lively). With all the ups and downs of professional life and love lost, Bobby is part of the eponymous Café Society, a lily-white segment of the population that consumes liquor and jazz in equal parts as part of an era idealized by Allen throughout his career.
Like most middling efforts from Woody Allen, there are numerous nuggets that are amusing but fail to coalesce into a coherent whole. For example, Allen provides the narration for the film and provides the audience with elaborate backstories for the various patrons of the nightclub in New York City. Who are these people? It doesn’t matter. What’s the relevance of their backstory? It also doesn’t matter. This is just a minor, nonsensical addition that works, like the film at its best, as a mild diversion.
Café Society lacks depth in its themes, and the film’s themes often feel like they’re working in contradiction with one another. Part of what endears Bobby to Vonnie is her indifference towards the name-dropping aspects of Hollywood, but Allen has the film itself be one extended name-drop after another. In a similarly contradictory fashion, Allen has the thwarted romance between Bobby and Vonnie have a moment of rekindling, as if the moment was driven by pure nostalgia. Perhaps this all might’ve meant something more had the film provided more context to the post-Vonnie relationship that Bobby dives head first into, or how post-Bobby life is for Vonnie herself. Instead the film is entirely an exercise in nostalgia without depth or self-awareness. Café Society is a forgettable summer romance that the film wants to reaffirm was the most memorable romance you’ve ever encountered.
For the most part, Café Society boasts some decent performances, though the scattershot nature of the film’s construction doesn’t really allow anyone to shine. In the first few scenes, it seems as if Eisenberg is trying to play his role as a cipher for Woody Allen, but once the actor ditches Allen’s mannerisms his performance becomes much more assured. In their third onscreen collaboration, it’s hard to deny that there is a chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. However, neither American Ultra nor Café Society has been able to harness that chemistry in the service of good movie, like Greg Motolla’s Adventureland. While Steve Carell is reliable in his role as a super-agent in the Golden Age of Hollywood, one can’t help but wonder if the movie would’ve been much more entertaining – albeit in a disastrous manner – had Allen not fired Bruce Willis from the role. Though underserved by the whole, I’d be interested in watching a whole movie about Corey Stoll’s brutal Jewish gangster. However, no character gets the short end of the stick in Café Society more than Blake Lively, whose character basically disappears once she’s had children.
The real things that stand out in Allen’s undercooked story is the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and the costume design by Suzy Benzinger. Storaro fills his images with a warm color palate that really compliments the sunny weather of Southern California and the summer romance of its story, and when the action shifts to New York the images adjust to the different climate, only warming up during the brief reunion between Bobby and Vonnie. Benzinger’s costumes do pretty much the same thing, with the clothing reflecting a more laid back California attitude before diving into the glitz and glamour of a Manhattan nightclub in the ’30s. For all the underwhelming aspects of Café Society, these are the two most consistently pleasing.
Each and every year, people go to the latest Woody Allen movie hoping that the legendary filmmaker will strike gold again. Of course, that has become a rarer and rarer proposition over the past few years, but he’s still capable of greatness, as shown in Midnight in Paris or Blue Jasmine. Café Society is reminiscent of Allen’s last two features (Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man), featuring some interesting ideas that are in dire need of refinement. But Woody Allen is an artist driven by his compulsions, which has been detrimental in both his personal and professional life. As he’s reiterated throughout his career, Allen, like the rest of us, has a strong fear of death. If only somebody would tell him that a second draft won’t kill him.
With a pretty look and rambling narrative, Café Society practically is the definition of a minor Woody Allen film.