Overview: A New Yorker moves to Hollywood to make it in film. Amazon Studios/Lionsgate; 2016; 96 Minutes.
Woody Allen as an Adjective: Café Society is Woody Allen at his most Woody Allen. Whether he’s tackling the infectious nature of fame and success or even creating a plain, simple romance, neuroses and cynicism oozes through his screens of warm-hues, bright colors, and lavish lifestyles. The disapproval of the Hollywood lifestyle feels almost editorial and auto-biographical, as characters find success on a surface level but lack any inner sense of fulfillment. Allen keeps the negativity in the forefront, at most, always a few rows back, with sly cynicism encroaching on traditional family ideals and estranging people, as young, naive outsider Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) finds himself in a love triangle (familiar territory for Kristen Stewart) with down-to-earth Vonnie (Stewart), and his uncle Phil Dorfman (Steve Carrell).
What’s Real and What’s Fake: As is generally the case with most films positioning Hollywood as a primary subject, the film blurs the lines between bleak reality (portrayed briefly in the Brooklyn scenes with Corey Stoll, in which violence is abrupt) and the phony artifice of the industry. Vonnie, an actress hopeful turned disillusioned secretary, plays alternate roles in the film, convincing both suitors of her love for them and her lackluster feelings for the other. In coating the film with this level of artifice however, Allen gives it a slickness in which nothing feels at stake. And, per usual, the characters all feel like different versions of Allen, indulgently riffing with each other. The first half feels like a reverberation of his past romantic comedies. The second half, in which Bobby finds success but still finds himself lovelorn over his aunt, is about as entertaining as watching two despicable characters cheat on their perfect significant others can be expected to be. But in Allen’s world, the heart wants what it wants, and complacency is impossible, so there will always be an overlying need for more.
Perfomances of Performances: The ensemble performances are all unapologetically bloated and entertaining. Jesse Eisenberg, in particular, is a perfect surrogate for the director. His transformation is unfathomable . Stewart, with her subtle under-celebrated grounded acting style, counterbalances the film’s standard screaming, shouting, and philosophical ruminating. Stewart is the epitome of the appeal of substance over surface (but with a very appealing surface).
Fast-paced editing, and snappy dialogue builds the film a rhythmn that hardly breaks. However, laughs are scarce throughout. Even with a lighthearted disposition, a dark cloud hangs over Cafe Society. Rather than conform to only quick takes however, Allen sustains his shot length for more than just comedic effect. In blocking his characters so that they enter and exit the frame rather than allowing the camera to cut, he gives the film a hurried but forlorn feel. It is all incredibly sad but, due to the lack of any true freshness in his characters, not very sympathetic.
Overall: In a bout of self-awareness, Bobby admits, “life is like a comedy, written by an extremely sadistic comedy writer,” and it’s difficult not to imagine who he’s speaking of. Late in his career, Allen has distanced himself from acting in his own movies; instead he finds actorial vehicles for his neuroses and over-analysis, screen players speaking his mind for him. Café Society isn’t as lazy as his last two efforts, but doesn’t manage to reach the heights that he is capable of producing. Next year, another one of his films will erase this one from memory, and perhaps redeem his recent string of less-than-successful faded copies.