Café Society (2016)

  • Time: 96 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Romance
  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell


Set in the 1930s, a young Bronx native moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary of his powerful uncle, an agent to the stars. After returning to New York he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.


  • The film ends on a shot of the back of hero Bobby’s head, framed by a black proscenium arch, as he pauses in the New Year’s Eve celebration at his Manhattan nightclub. The arch reminds us life is theatre.
    The shot evokes its antithesis at the end of Manhattan: Allen’s Alvy Singer’s open face as he contemplates his young lover’s (Mariel Hemingway as Tracy) departure for study in London and its threat to their romantic future. Of course, the latter shot was itself a replication of/homage to Chaplin’s close to City Lights. There the close-up on the tramp’s face projects his roiling mix of pride that his beloved blind flower girl can now see and resignation that her vision has dispelled her romantic delusions about him. “Yes, I can see,” she admits, dashed.
    The parallel suggests Cafe Society is an older artist’s return to his imaginative past, especially to the romanticism and moral tensions of that 1979 classic. There are other echoes: the golden dusk skyline, the Manhattan-philiac score, the romantic carriage ride in Central Park. The December-June romance here is displaced onto Phil Stern’s relationship with his secretary Vonnie, though the nebbish (Isaac there, Bobby here) still finds himself caught unawares in a romantic triangle. The new film is less judgmental: there is no betrayal in the Phil-Vonnie-Bobby triangle, just a collision of genuine loves. (Phil’s wife shares the betrayal Yale committed upon his wife and friend Isaac).
    The back of the head is explicitly inexpressive. What can hair say in the dark? The climactic face shot may be played as inexpressive — as Rouben Mamoulian instructed Garbo to play her Queen Christina — but it trusts the audience to read into it the complex of emotions the context provides. The back does that as well.
    We read into our rear view of Bobby’s head the elements we found in Vonnie’s face in the preceding scene: a detachment from the hilarity around them, a loving memory of each other and both a regret and a resignation that their choices turned them so dramatically apart. Of course the characters and the bicoastal settings are bridged by the song on the soundtrack, “I’ll Take Manhattan,” which Bobby did and which Vonnie might now prefer to do.
    The soundtrack is studded with Rogers and Hart songs. The composers are cited here as having based their careers on the sadness of unrequited love. They “got it right.” Here as in Annie Hall art provides a satisfaction and completeness that real life doesn’t.
    The film itself seems a film about film. In the opening lines the Beverly Hills poolside life is described as a supersaturated Technicolor experience. Hence the burnished gold in which 1930’s Hollywood is imaged and in the glorious aura of the Hollywood stars, who are constantly named in the dialogue — without anyone appearing in the story (but some do on film). Their names transcend corporeality.
    Allen’s third-person narration of the film confirms this detachment. We’re watching a narrative of supposed life but it’s packaged and presented as a story. Allen sounds like an 80-year-old man now, even as Jesse Eisenberg’s speech rhythms recall the young Woody. It’s an old man’s story, an old man’s retrospection, in which experience has softened the young man’s moral absolutism, softening our judgment of the romantic mistakes and even of the gangsters’ murderous criminality, whose victims may sometimes almost deserve their fate.
    As the erstwhile idealist Bobby points out, “In matters of the heart people do foolish things.” And sometimes they prove right — one way or another — as the later careers and maturity of Vonnie and Bobby appear to prove. As Vonnie explains, she had good reasons for preferring Phil. Arguably all three found fuller lives as a result. “Alternatives exclude”: We can’t have everything. We make our choices as the heart and head determine and we live with the consequences. As the Stern matriarch advises, “Live every day as if it’s the last and some day you’ll be right.”
    Here life doesn’t allow for rigid purity. Bobby’s early scene with the aspiring prostitute is a knot of impulses and conscientious restraints. The gangster murder scenes seem incongruous in a Woody Allen film but are absorbed into the period and genre contexts of the plot. In Allen’s rewrite of Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot,” life here is a comedy — written by a sadistic scriptwriter.
    In this land of romantic fiction, the Ali Baba Motel is at the intersection of Grace and Yucca. The sacred ever collides with the profane in the land of Hollywood gods and goddesses. In the most pragmatic choice gangster brother Ben converts to Catholicism on the eve of his execution because Jews don’t believe in an afterlife. Ben chooses to believe what the situation encourages him to believe. And if Aristotle contended that the unexamined life is not worth living, “the examined life is no bargain either.” These are the ruminations of an older man.
    Essentially this film shows a master artist exulting in the practice of his art. It is masterfully made, rich in nuance and complexity. “The Lady is a Tramp” bridges Phil’s dumping of Vonnie and her developing love for Bobby. Vonnie is validated by the song’s respect for the irregularities and integrity of its heroine. When the two Exes meet in Bobby’s club later, her glib Hollywood chatter and his club-running slick are equally signs of their new lives, new experiences, but only overlays on their essential innocence when they first met and their bond and attraction that survives.
    Veronica asks Bobby if he was ever unfaithful to her. His pragmatic answer is no. But it may also be true, because a kiss is just a kiss, a treasured lost love is just a treasured lost love, as time and life and art go by.

  • The heart doesn’t always get what it wants in Woody Allen’s Café Society, which contains a melancholic heart within its confectionary packaging.

    Allen himself narrates the tale of one Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), newly arrived and hoping to try his luck in 1930s Hollywood. Taken under the wing of his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a hotshot agent who’s constantly wheeling and dealing whether it be in his oak-walled and Art Deco-adorned Beverly Hills office or during the any number of swanky parties thrown at his seaside mansion, Bobby is both overwhelmed and suspicious of this glamorous world where industry talk, name-dropping and catty backstabbing are as natural as breathing oxygen. Ambivalent though this New Yorker may be, he’s found a reason to stay and the reason is named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

    Vonnie is Phil’s young assistant whom he’s tasked to show Bobby around town. Bobby is instantly enchanted and why not? Stewart has never been more beautiful and her delicate and expressive performance is surely her best to date. Warm and level-headed, her Vonnie remains a bit of a country girl at heart. “I think I’d be happier being life-sized,” she remarks as she takes Bobby on a tour of movie star houses and discuss those larger-than-life figures on the silver screen. Instead of going to the Brown Derby, where the intent is to see and be seen, she brings Bobby to a Spanish-style joint dominated by a mural of Mexican street life. There’s hardly anyone in the place and that suits Bobby just fine – all he wants is to luxuriate in the pleasure of her company.

    Cupid is a mischievous matchmaker. It turns out that Vonnie has been conducting an affair with Phil, who keeps promising to leave his wife though he can never seem to follow through. Vonnie herself is torn between the dynamic and powerful Phil and the sweet and adoring Bobby. Much bittersweet humour is derived from Phil confiding his romantic troubles to Bobby, who obliviously advises his own rival to follow his heart. Even better is a scene where Phil confronts Vonnie, now working as a coat-check girl, over her intentions to marry Bobby and move to New York. Carell proves himself the master of the brave face, desperately trying to convince Vonnie to reconsider her decision whilst feigning good cheer to all who pass. It’s hard to sort out your private life when everyone in town knows you.

    Allen draws from the same narrative palette that has coloured many of his films, but there’s a freshness and vibrancy in Café Society, a whimsicality that is wonderfully mixed with the melancholy that makes this a minor but memorable masterpiece. This is also undoubtedly one of Allen’s most gorgeous works and that’s due in large part to excellent contributions by production designer Santo Loquasto, costume designer Suzy Benzinger and, most especially, legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who crafts compositions so lucid and lustrous that one feels spellbound.

    Yearning is the underlying theme here. What’s intriguing is how the yearning for something else doesn’t necessarily stem from dissatisfaction. Phil is pained by his situation because he doesn’t want to leave his wife (the way Carell barks how good a woman his wife is to Eisenberg is an amusing bit of aggression). Vonnie loves Bobby, but she also genuinely loves Phil. Bobby mends his broken heart with Veronica (Blake Lively, impossibly slinky), but wonders if he might nickname her “Vonnie.” Even when the characters find their happy endings, they’re still dreaming of what might have been and the final shot of Vonnie and Bobby, together but apart, pierces with poignancy.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆½ out of 5 )


    IN BRIEF: Not top-tier Allen, but worth seeing nevertheless.

    GRADE: B-

    SYNOPSIS: In 1930’s Hollywood, a slightly neurotic boy falls in love with a pretty girl but their romance hits a few bumps.
    JIM’S REVIEW: The prolific Woody Allen dips into his nostalgic bag of tricks once again as he creates his 52nd directed film, Café Society. He tells the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a nice Jewish boy escaping his lower class roots and looking to meet the elite and further his less than stellar career. So he is off to Hollywood with hopes of fame and fortune. Under the tutelage of his rich and ruthless Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a top studio bigwig who has a secret or two, he falls head over heels in love with Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) with a secret or two also.

    That is the set-up, a predictable formula that Mr. Allen and other screenwriters have used and re-used time and time again. In this movie, the end results remain effective but keep the filmmaker in safe territory, while his script lacks genuine structure and narrative skill. Some characters are fully drawn while others are in need of development. Some scenes are spot-on, others are spotty and never build to any degree of importance. (A scene with Allen’s standard heart of gold prostitute, well played by Anna Camp, adds nothing to the plot and makes no sense in this movie…maybe in Mighty Aphrodite or To Rome With Love….but not in this film. It’s as if the director/ screenwriter gets confused with too many ideas in need of editing.)

    And speaking of Allen’s other film works…Raiding his own film arsenal to create this movie, he gingerly takes the format and era of his Radio Days and smears it with Broadway Danny Rose, with a generous helping of Crimes and Misdemeanors and a dollop of Bullets Over Broadway. Originality gives way to familiarity in Mr. Allen’s latest offering.

    The acting is also unbalanced, with some actors well cast and others unable to find their characters. In the lead, Mr. Eisenberg becomes Allen’s surrogate player and he is perfect for this role, although the actor plays up more of the dramatic aspects than the comedy. He is the heart of the film and the actor holds one’s attention throughout the film. The opposite can be said of his leading lady. Kristen Stewart as his love interest and she fails to make her character convincing. The actress brings a modern sensibility and toughness that ill-fits her role. There is fine support from Corey Stoll as Ben, Bobby’s gangster brother, Sari Lennick as his whining but loving sister, Steven Kunken as her moral spouse, and Blake Lively as Veronica, another woman in Bobby’s life. Jeannie Berlin plays Rose, Bobby’s’s shrewish mother, and she is a delight, providing much of the comedy with Ken Stott a fine foil as her henpecked husband, Marty. Parker Posey doesn’t have much to do with her minor role and Steve Carell is rather bland as the self-absorbed and never happy Hollywood agent.

    Perhaps the film’s major strength is on a technical level. Café Society may be one of Mr. Allen’s best looking films to date, with luscious photography by Vittorio Storaro whose rich vibrant hues and beautiful compositions enhance the film tremendously, lovely period costumes by Suzy Benzinger, and simply terrific set designs by Santo Loquasto. The film is awash in high society glitz. These details capture the 30’s era with wit and style, more than the director offers with his episodic screenplay.

    It is his script that needs some careful rewriting. His premise still intrigues even if his dialog never sounds real. Mr. Allen seems to be more interested in finding a funny zinger or two than creating complex characters and conversations that advance his plot. (Still, Allen, the director creates some strong images and his film does has some memorable moments. One scene involving Seder is classic Allen and his ending has a nice bittersweet spin.)

    Café Society is diverting enough entertainment, but its rag-to-riches tale is slightly tattered around the glossy edges.

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