Café Society - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review
As the opener for the Cannes Film Festival this year, everyone hoped Café Society would be a ‘good Allen’. This refers both to Woody Allen’s prolific output of movies - typically one a year - and their wildly varying quality. Several, like Annie Hall, Match Point, or Blue Jasmine have become classics. Others - To Rome With Love, Magic in the Moonlight, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger - are easily forgettable.
Café Society, unfortunately tends to fall in the latter category. Much like the Coen Brothers’ recent Hail Caesar, the film is a homage to Hollywood’s golden age. Set in the 1930s, it follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a New Yorker who moves to Los Angeles to join his uncle’s (Steve Carell) bustling talent agency. There, he meets and falls in love with a secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). But she is seeing someone else - and Bobby must decide whether to embrace superficial Hollywood glamour, or return to his home city.
The film isn’t an unpleasant watch. The dialogue, while a tad verbose (an Allen trademark), is rather witty, and dotted with entertaining jabs about the film industry, religion, and romance. The cast too, delivers: Stewart makes a restrained, poised, performance, while Eisenberg is touching as a lost and enamoured soul. Steve Carell as Bobby’s uncle Phil Stern continues his excellent streak - he sharply shifts between an exacting, worldly demeanour, to that of a heartbroken man. And it’s rather fun to see Corey Stoll as Ben, Bobby’s devilishly charming gangster brother. (Though disappointingly, Blake Lively is underused, only appearing in a few scenes.)
Allen also creates an enchanting atmosphere (though some of it feels a little anachronistic). There’s swanky 30s fashion, jazz bands aplenty, and stunning sunny backdrops. Think dramatic beaches, pristine swimming pools, luxurious villas, and classy nightclubs. The photography throughout is bathed in golden light.
However, while fun and alluring, Café Society isn’t striking. The story meanders, centring in turn on Bobby, his uncle, and their wider family with no clear direction. The genre varies too, with dabbles in romance, gangster fare, comedy of errors, and drama. Due to this, it’s not until the closing scenes that we at last discover what the film’s theme really is: nostalgia. Allen evokes a longing both for an epoch more glamorous than ours (ie LA/NYC’s elite in the 1930s), and, on a more personal level, dreams of what might have been after a relationship falls apart.
While this personal dimension of nostalgia is interesting, it’s not conveyed clearly enough, and so makes little impact. In addition, the film’s main characters - Bobby and Vonnie - become a lot less likeable halfway into the story. This, and the film’s vagueness, makes it impossible to feel much (aside from occasional amusement).
Café Society is agreeable, and nothing more. With its decent dialogue and pleasant setting, one wonders whether a thorough redraft of the script could have shifted it from the passable to the noteworthy. For now, this is isn’t a ‘good Allen’, though perhaps he (and we) might strike lucky at his next release.
Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.