Café Society Review
It's almost too easy and somewhat dismissive to categorise Woody Allen's films as 'love letters' and fail to look for any finer detail in his subjects - you know, Manhattan is Woody's love letter to New York; Radio Days his affair with the Golden Age of radio in the 1940s; the object of his affections seems obvious in Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love. Café Society looks destined to be grouped alongside The Purple Rose of Cairo as one of Woody's nostalgic love letters to the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema in the 1930s. Like most of those Woody Allen's films however love is never a simple matter and in Café Society its tribulations perhaps point to an essential conflict within the director's own personal life and say something about his awkward relationship with the movie industry.
Considering the central relationship in Café Society as a kind of metaphor for the choices that the director has struggled with over in his personal life and in his filmmaking career is perhaps reading a little too much into it, but there is certainly a level of conceptual intent and philosophical musing in Allen's films that isn't always given due attention. There may be a good reason for that and it could be something to do with the director's notoriously inconsistent back catalogue and an often slapdash approach to scriptwriting and filmmaking (which itself is telling), but there appears to be a greater sense of craft and attention paid to detail in the director's latest film.
Ambition is perhaps the one crucial thing that has been lacking in Allen's recent run of films (and when I say recent, that's arguably going right back to post-Crimes and Misdemeanors in 1990), but that's not the case with Café Society. In fact, were it not for the consistency of the cinematography and the strength of some of the performances, it's doubtful that Allen could carry off what seems to be the coming together into a summation of a number of themes that persist throughout his career. Even then it's a matter of opinion and down to the individual viewer whether he carries it off or not, but ambition is one thing that is not lacking in Café Society.
The main part of the film is 'just' a love story, but it's one that has to carry the weight of all Allen's other themes and ideas. Jesse Eisenberg is the latest young Woody Allen surrogate, having appeared before in Woody mode in one of the segments of To Rome With Love. He's far from perfect as Bobby (although a better fit that Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity) and he looks particularly awkward as a romantic lead, but then Woody Allen himself was far from convincing in that role. Coming to Hollywood to make his fortune, Bobby seeks out and eventually gets a small job working for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a hotshot movie mogul who knows all the stars and has much influence and pull in the industry.
As well as getting to mingle with all the top stars and attend glamorous parties, even as a gofer for Phil, Bobby gets to spend time with Phil's personal assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and instantly falls head over heels for her, even though Vonnie warns him that she is in love with another man. Bobby takes no notice and pursues Vonnie and eventually - when she is let down by what turns out to be a married man who doesn't come through on his promises to leave his wife - he manages to win her over. There are however a few more ups and downs to their relationship over the years as it gets caught up in the whole buzz not just of the celebrity world of Hollywood, but the growing café society in New York as Bobby starts to establish his own club back home.
Woody Allen doesn't usually go in for fancy concepts, but he has been self-aware and self-critical enough to successfully explore his relationship with the movies before in Stardust Memories (and send a love letter to Fellini's 8 1/2 in the process). Café Society is even more ambitious than that, since it also incorporates many of the themes that have cropped up in his other films over the years. In two brothers of Bobby's New York Jewish family - one a gangster, the other a liberal intellectual - you find many of the conflicts that Allen has explored around religion, philosophy and the question of death, particularly on the Dostoyevskian question of 'Crime and Punishment'. The nature of celebrity is there as well, but there are lots of personal references and obsessions brought in, almost too much to pack into a single film.
It's a credit to the three leads that their love-triangle manages to sustain and tie all these threads together. Eisenberg and Carrell fulfil their roles well, but it's Kristen Stewart who is a revelation here, her low-key Vonnie wonderfully magnetic and pretty much a magnet who has two men caught in alternate attraction and repulsion of her twin poles. It's this conflict that best captures Allen's own conflict and ambivalence between being a New Yorker and a Hollywood filmmaker; between being a comedy writer and wanting to be a serious filmmaker; between enjoying the power of celebrity and wanting to remain independent and choose to play jazz in a café; between wanting to believe in an afterlife and believing that this is all we have; choices where being attracted to one option unfortunately precludes the other.
Assuming that the director has actually put the care and attention that the subject deserves this time, Café Society however has one other notable element that gives the film a little more substance and holds all that ambition together, and that's the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Shooting on digital for the first time at the suggestion of his cinematographer, Storaro manages not just to capture the heyday of Hollywood in a nostalgic glow, but he brings a wonderful consistency to the work. The locations for each encounter are not only well-chosen, but perfectly lit and decorated to capture the differences between the two worlds of Bobby and Vonnie, two worlds that are in perpetual conflict. The wider and apparently tangential questions that Allen brings up elsewhere make it clear however that this affair is never going to work, and by drawing all those other elements into the picture, Allen genuinely makes a personal drama feel like a tragedy. As with Manhattan or Annie Hall, this is what Woody Allen at his best can do, and he's close to his best here.