Written and directed by Woody Allen | 96 min | ▲▲▲△△
“Until, one day out hunting, she mistook him for a deer.”
That line’s got great bite, maybe the best in the whole picture, a fleeting moment of Woody Allen’s wit at its sharpest—though, granted, some context will help with getting the laugh if you see the film. Café Society is full of charming yet bittersweet moments, though maybe not consistently to that sharpish standard. When it is, occasionally, it makes a good argument for itself.
Allen revisits the ’30s where his increasingly stagey dialogue won’t feel quite so stiff. It’s a gambit that reveals some self-awareness—his recent films set in contemporary American feel hermetically sealed, and he’s smart enough to know at age 80 he’s a little out of step with 21st Century America. Why not idealize the past like he did in Midnight In Paris? That choice led to the biggest box office of his career.
Here the flavours are split between New York nightlife and parties around Los Angeles swimming pools, where the sun is always at the perfect golden hour. (Full credit to DP Vittorio Storraro for shooting the loveliest-looking Woody Allen picture since Match Point, or maybe even Everyone Says I Love You.) Allen doesn’t appear, though he can’t resist the awkward crutch of the omniscient narrator.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart reunite in very different roles following last year’s American Ultra, with Eisenberg offering his second stab at a slightly bumbling Allenesque lead after To Rome With Love. His Bobby is a smug, self-satisfied Jewish kid from the Bronx who heads out to Hollywood to get a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), an agent who knows everyone in town. Bobby gets shown around by Phil’s assistant, Veronica aka Vonnie (Stewart), and immediately falls for her, but he takes time to woo her—she’s seeing someone else, a married man. Things get further complicated for Bobby, with the added influence of his gangster brother (Corey Stoll) and. later, back in New York, another woman named Veronica (Blake Lively).
Much of this is lazily fun, if a little episodic. It’s not a film with a sense of the story building to anything, but happy to meander through a morality play of unfaithful spouses, casual mob hits on angry neighbours, and the distractions of the idyll rich. It’s a fool’s errand to compare this confection with classic Woody, back when his existential angst slammed against his moral imperatives to create really gripping films. But it’s worth mentioning some of the concerns of his great Crimes and Misdemeanours are revisited here, in a slighter way.
What especially works is a feeling of melancholy, that not all our dreams will come true, no matter how much we might wish for it. The movie doesn’t fully embrace that thought, but plays around with it. For that well-judged wistfulness, Café Society is worth a visit. As another character puts it:
“Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. But the examined one’s no bargain.”