Woody Allen returns to his love affair with the early 1900’s with his look at Hollywood and romance in Café Society. Thematically picking up where films like Midnight in Paris and Magic in the Moonlight left off, Café Society is a whimsical look at the burgeoning world that is 1930’s Los Angeles. Starring a slew of great modern actors – Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll -, this is a joyous tale of a man finding love and himself in a new city.
Eisenberg is this films Allen-surrogate, Bobby – a Jewish kid from New York, moves from his home town to LA to work for his high-falluting uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). There’s no aspirations of grandeur here – Bobby simply wants to work. Sure, he’s got a healthy admiration for the actresses of the era, but for the most part, Bobby simply wants to get to work at whatever it is he can do and then make a life for himself from there. Soon enough, he’s running errands for Phil and on his first day, he’s escorted around town by the luminescent Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Unfortunately for Bobby, she is encumbered with a partner – meaning he can’t exactly sweep her off her feet like his heart has planned him to.
Compared the early ‘futuristic’ films of Allen’s career (Bananas, Sleeper, Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask), his work has started to skew towards the retrospective. Café Society’s set-up is simple, but the warm embrace that Allen gives to 1930’s Hollywood is what keeps the heart and soul of this story moving. He has genuine affection for the world that his idols once ruled, and it’s through characters like Bobby and Vonnie we get to see that adoration brought to life. Discussions about the stars of the era and their bigger than life presences in the societies the characters move within fuel a lot of the background chatter.
Performances and dialogue aside – the cinematography by first time collaborator Vittorio Storaro is sublime. Showcasing a world in eternal sunset or sunrise, Storaro’s lens captures Hollywood in all its 1930’s beauty. New York is equally stunning. Of course, Allen’s no stranger to the city, but within Café Society it feels fresh, reinvigorated – as if Allen has fallen back in love with his hometown after being away for some time (Allen’s last film set purely in New York was the underrated Whatever Works). Allen has notoriously shifted cinematographers throughout his career, so it’s great that even though thematically there is a lot that is familiar within Café Society, it stands apart from Allen’s other films with its glorious visual palette.
Allen returns to a regular theme in his films – the concept of love triangles. Here, they are countless – Bobby, Vonnie and her partner; Bobby, Hollywood and New York; gangsters, the upper class and the lower class; films, their stars and the audiences who lust after them. The feeling of lust and jealousy drips off the screen, each character moved by their own unique desires. Allen partially narrates the tale here, and that helps carry through the adoration of the 1930’s – as if Woody himself has sat us down next to a wood fire to regale us of stories long from the past.
Admittedly, Café Society won’t be for everyone. If you’re an Allen apologist like myself, then you may embrace this more than average audiences will. For me – this was like a fine dessert – superbly performed, wonderfully written, and at just the right length, this is truly a joy to watch. Throw in some classic Allen observations – one particular line about death had me howling with laughter – and you’ve got (what is for me at least) a modern Woody Allen classic.
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell
Writer: Woody Allen