Woody Allen has been making pictures (as his 1930s Hollywood setting in Café Society old-timingly refers to movies) at a once a year click since 1982 — and really, he’s only missed that once-a-year mark a few times since 1969. Although he’s one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, Allen’s output in the 2000s has mostly felt like he’s just filling his yearly storytelling quota. For every Midnight in Paris there’s about four To Rome with Love’s.
In this regard, Café Society can sometimes feel a little lazy, as Allen himself narrates two coastal stories —of a budding California romance and a Manhattan crime syndicate — that seem thematically divergent. But once you get into the groove, Society reveals itself to be akin to a slow California day, slowly but gloriously bringing to light its intentions and letting it ruminate long after you leave. While Society might be a tad bit clunky in its overall story construction, it’s perhaps Allen’s most visually nuanced film since Zelig, and his most understanding study of why relationships don’t work out since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It also provides yet another example of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s undeniable chemistry together.
Eisenberg is Bobby Dorgman, a New Yorker who’s made his way to Hollywood in an attempt to remove himself from the familial opportunities that have been afforded to him. New York means teaming up with his gangster brother, Ben Dorfman (Corey Stoll), or becoming a working stiff like his father. But in Hollywood, he has the opportunity to insert himself into the life of his far-removed uncle, Paul Stern (Steve Carell), a hotshot Tinseltown agent. Stern continuously pushes back a meeting with his nephew, but after many phone calls from Bobby’s beleaguered mother (Jeannie Berlin), he finally acquiesces. The meeting is brief, and Stern promises a few errand jobs to Bobby before asking his assistant, Vonnie (Stewart), to escort him around town to get a lay of La La Land.
Bobby and Vonnie have the same spark between them that Eisenberg and Stewart already established in the potentially doomed romances of Adventureland and American Ultra. He’s the educated neurotic, she’s the beauty who’s less interested in glamor and more interested in accumulating life experiences—including mistakes of the heart. Bobby and Vonnie have a definite connection, but she’s actually quietly seeing Bobby’s (married) uncle Paul on the side.
Yes, Café Society is another 2000s-era Woody Allen film involving an older man with a younger woman. But whereas Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man narratively got under my skin with their presentation of that trope Society ultimately earns a pass from me. (Moonlight was most irksome for its extremely forced “didn’t you know I loved you?” moment, and Man was irksome for the grating fact that Emma Stone’s intelligent student never had anything to talk about to anyone other than the pros and cons of her two potential suitors, one much older and one her own age). Stewart and Carell share few scenes together, and their chemistry isn’t strong, but it shouldn’t be, for Café Society reveals itself to be a story about people settling for what they think is easiest, and quieting the internal voice that counters it. Stewart’s romance with Carell is not presented as romantic at all, and Eisenberg’s next romance is equally emotionally lacking.
There have been some recent studies and essays that are currently catching fire about how people routinely marry the wrong person to fit their life expectations, but end up miserable because their expectations are higher than they should be for themselves. Bobby loves the contact high of Hollywood, but midway through the film he returns to New York, where he successfully runs his brother’s nightclub. Spurned by Vonnie, he desires the opposite of the woman who most stirred his heart, and marries a comely divorcee who ticks the glamour box (Blake Lively), births children for him, but does not spark his creativity or sense of adventure the way that Vonnie did. Likewise, Vonnie, who abhorred gossip and the starfucking parties of Hollywood, chooses stability; but with Stern’s stability, she becomes a gossiping starfucker.
Connecting these stories of lovers who are not able to commit to their love for one another is Stoll as Bobby’s gangster brother. For most of the film, Allen’s scenes of Stoll enforcing his territory and burying foes in cement feels disconnected and forced, but where the film goes with relationships—after taking a step back and reflecting—the inclusion does help to better define Bobby. Bobby is attempting to escape his family by using another side of his family. That family member burns him badly with the woman he loves. And so Bobby trades one high society for another. Both Hollywood and his nightclub are built on lies, though, and so both his Uncle’s relationship and Bobby’s own romantic pursuit becomes disingenuous and more what society deems we should want from a relationship.
For a family who’s turning a blind eye to crime, their search for legitimacy is increased by Bobby’s pursuit of a partner who can bring them to a more civilized society. And in Vonnie and Peter’s relationship, Café Society is perhaps the most indirect embodiment of Allen’s controversial personal life, with his marriage to his longtime former girlfriend’s adopted daughter; Carell selfishly hurts his family by running off with a younger woman who was hired to work for him.
Café Society darts in many different directions to map out Bobby’s family. This includes many funny scenes involving his doting aunt (Sari Lennick) and her philosopher husband (Stephen Kunken), who serve as a Greek Chorus in response to Allen’s narration. But their inclusion, though funny, sometimes makes the story lose focus. But what pulls you through the entire film is the amazing cinematography by Vittorio Storaro.
Café Society is the first film that Allen has shot digitally (Storaro, too), and it’s his most gorgeous film yet. Storaro is an interesting pick because the Italian cinematographer essentially birthed the 70s look of film with The Conformist and capped off the decade with the feverish Apocalypse Now (he also greatly influenced Woody Allen’s long-time cinematographer Gordon Willis). Storaro’s patented golden and dusty hues make Hollywood a wonderland in Café Society. There’s a magnificent moment in Bobby’s apartment where he loses electricity and Vonnie lights a candle that is unquestionably the shot of the summer. Similarly, there’s a beach scene where Stewart pushes past the camera as she presses on top of Eisenberg that wholly envelops the feeling of an endless summer romance. The New York scenes, however, are decidedly steely and less romantic.
Café Society greatly benefits from Allen and Storaro, Eisenberg and Stewart working seamlessly together. Both of those duos pull the narrative through some story ruts, and by the end, even provides a greater point about what we talk about when we’re talking about love. There’s some lovely written moments, as one would expect from an Allen film, but it’s truly the visual cues and the immensely expressive leads that elevate Café Society into the upper echelon of Allen’s 21st century soufflés.
Café Society opens in select cities July 15