Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell
Say what you will about Woody Allen (and there’s plenty that could be said for sure – just ask Susan Sarandon), but the man seems to know a thing or two about love. One way or another he’s been around the block a few times, and it’s a subject his work is repeatedly drawn to. Even into his eighties, he’s still trying to figure it out.
This year’s Allen flick Café Society slips comfortably – but thankfully not totally anonymously – into that middle tier of his pictures, finding company with much of his later output. His prolific turnaround is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it allows his seemingly blinded devotees an annual shot of hope that they might get another diamond to thrown in with the rough, on the other these pictures feel tossed out at such a rate that their value seems compromised. Quantity and quality have always been strange bedfellows. Few of his recent films have felt imbued with any sense of longevity. They are low ambition puff pieces, and Allen seems content with that.
So be it. I’ve never been a particular devotee of his and, if I’m honest, I’m hard pressed to tell his supposedly great films (Hannah And Her Sisters, Annie Hall, Manhattan) from his merely fine ones (virtually everything). But, regardless of that signature typeface that’s adorned all his films in recent memory, you always know his work when you see it.
This time we’re taken back to the 1930s and a picture that splits fairly evenly between Hollywood and New York. Much of the first half takes place on the West Coast, as nebbish high-trousered Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg; Allen’s latest onscreen foil) crosses the country to take a taste of the life in Tinsel Town, aiming to get a job with his movie mogul uncle Phil (Steve Carell). In doing so he meets Phil’s young, vivacious secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and the three play out a buoyant love triangle in between cocktail soirees and romantic walks on the beaches. It’s a classic set-up and one that skips along as Allen tips his hat to Hollywood’s burgeoning golden era.
He’s helped in no small way by the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, almost stealing the show with that fantastic opening shot (seen in the trailer) in which the mirrored pool on the terrace of a Beverly Hills mansion doubles the party in full swing. Storaro gives the film the kick it sometimes sorely needs, certainly once you’ve heard Allen’s own seemingly disinterested and befuddled narration.
Allen’s writing scores some easy, universal home truths while navigating the perplexities of love both requited and otherwise, but it’s the cast that bring this one home. Eisenberg skulks around like a young Allen, nailing that stance that suggests he left his coat hanger in his suit jacket when putting it on. Allen’s male leads tend to be direct incarnations of their director (see, for instance, Owen Wilson in the inexplicably celebrated Midnight In Paris) and, for better or worse, so it goes again here. But both Eisenberg and Carell are coolly upstaged by Stewart, who’s barely put a foot wrong in the last few years.
And Café Society may well have fared better overall if it had kept it’s attention on just these three. It might still have felt slight, but slight with focus. As it is, the film’s second half sees the narrative wander as it swings back to NYC, where Blake Lively is sorely underused as Veronica, Bobby’s beautiful replacement for the real love of his life. A B-story involving Bobby’s criminally minded older brother Ben (Corey Stoll) winds up adding very little to the picture save for an extra 15 minutes running time and it takes the return of Stewart and Carell to bring any kind of unity to the film.
Yet unity there is, and Allen ties things up in a manner that’s fittingly bittersweet given his age and general demeanor. These films of his have always had an eye on the more rueful charter of human emotion; the chances not taken or poorly timed. He’s made a name for himself for fifty years, and part of that brand is his whimsical pessimism. So there are laughs as usual, and as usual some of that uncomfortably randy schtick of his gets tossed in because, well, the man really can’t help himself. Fortunately in this instance that comes mainly in the form of a well-played scene between Eisenberg and Anna Camp. It’s her only scene in the picture but it’s one of the more memorable.
Overall, however, Café Society is more of a lament, albeit a glossy and trifling one. It’s scant praise to say it’s his best since Blue Jasmine given the inbetweeners there are Magic In The Moonlight and Irrational Man, but all things considered this film displays the kind of breezy low ambition Allen has evidently grown accustomed to. Fair enough.