Woody Allen’s Café Society Embraces the Beauty of Hollywood’s Golden Age

Café Society

Written & Directed by Woody Allen
USA, 2016

Woody Allen has made many films by now, thanks to his steady one-per-year pace. Quite a few of those (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) have become classics. Café Society doesn’t quite live up to those esteemed films, but it does carve out its own niche in Allen’s oeuvre as his most beautiful film ever.

Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman, who leaves his tight-knit Jewish family in New York to find a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) in Hollywood. Phil is an agent to the stars who regularly drops names and alludes to deals that never seem to go through. His assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) initially catches Bobby’s eye, but she rebuffs him with talk of a boyfriend, who happens to be Uncle Phil.

Despite promises that he would leave his wife (unsolicited by Vonnie), Phil decides to end the affair. Vonnie and Bobby then start their own relationship in a joyously carefree section of the film. Allen hasn’t allowed a film of his to be this unabashedly romantic since his early masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan. Stewart in particular shines as Vonnie. Many of Allen’s latter-day female leads are underwritten, and Vonnie isn’t developed to the same extent as Bobby, but Stewart manages to convey a cool intelligence lacking in some of his other actresses. The dialogue often sounds unnatural, more literary than realistic, like the French and Swedish films that inspired Allen (he sticks closer to the vernacular when he’s acting in his own films), yet it rolls off Stewart’s tongue effortlessly.

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That’s not to say that the other actors are uninspired. Eisenberg is funnier than he has been in a while; he adopts the nebbish persona he’s eschewed in the last few years, and returns to it with ease. He shows off his comedic skills in an early scene in which he rebuffs a prostitute (Anna Camp) who’s doing it professional for the first time. Carrell adopts the speech patterns of 1930s Hollywood ably, although the screenplay fails to supply him with comedic material to work with. It’s a shame, considering how he has demonstrated ample talent on The Office.

Café Society has a beauty that stands out among Allen’s films, much of which is attributable to its cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. Storaro is responsible for shooting films like The Conformist and Apocalypse Now, and his mastery of color is present in every scene. The interiors have a soft, golden glow that makes the actors look almost angelic. It’s far from naturalistic, but never obtrusive; Storaro’s lighting helps to enhance the growing connection between Bobby and Vonnie. The Hollywood of the 1930s hasn’t looked so beautiful since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

Café Society tells a wisp-thin story, but it falls into dark territory that Allen hasn’t explored since his last drama, Cassandra’s Dream (2007). Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is a mobster who shoots and kills anyone who rubs him the wrong way, then buries their bodies in cement. It could have been morbid material, but Allen successfully plays it for laughs. The relationship between Bobby and Vonnie is also not as ideal as the wish-fulfillment romances of Allen’s recent movies. Their bittersweet romance harkens back to Annie Hall, and Carrell’s inability to choose between his wife and his lover is reminiscent of Michael Murphy’s indecision in Manhattan.

Café Society’s connection to those earlier films suggests that Allen may have plugged back into a strain of creativity that seemed long gone. His dream-like late films offer their own pleasures and have given him the freedom to experiment, but they lack the humanity that animates his earlier films. Café Society might be his path back to that humanity.

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