‘Café Society’ Is an Exhausting, Exasperating Film About Illusions and Delusions
The Woody Allen express rolls bumpily on with a glossy '30s-set bauble that half-heartedly poses the same interesting questions he’s been ruminating on for decades.
Woody Allen’s latest time machine, Café Society is nearly done before it gets off a halfway decent joke. Not that it’s been trying too hard before then to be funny, or anything much in particular besides reheat some old Allen material and stir it around before calling it a day. You get the sense that he was already plotting out his next film while still dashing off dialogue for this one.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg, nervy and anxious without imitating Allen) is a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx who heads for Hollywood after deciding that his dad’s jewelry business is not for him. After all, it’s the '30s and Hollywood is where dreams are being made. Also, he’s got uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a high-powered agent on first-name terms with all the biggest stars. Phil, an icy, one-note Sammy Glick of a guy who doesn’t seem to have the ability to charm his wife much less coddled film stars, couldn’t care less what Bobby wants, but eventually throws the kid a few odd jobs. Bobby meets and falls for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a bright and beautiful assistant in Phil’s agency who becomes his close but platonic friend, a situation sure to change well before the credits roll.
You would imagine that, given Allen’s continuing obsession with the glamorous romances and comedies of this period, that this would have been his opportunity to craft a real love letter to prewar Hollywood. Think of the way that he rhapsodized over the same period’s New York showbiz and crime intersections in Bullets Over Broadway. Bobby could serve as his wide-eyed explorer to this world of egos and fantasy, showing us all the bright lights and dark secrets of the dream factory.
But no sooner has Bobby made it to Hollywood than he veers off from that path. His relationship with Vonnie takes precedent over his career as a striving gofer, and they spend their time going on non-dates. These are narrated, as is most of the plot, with a lugubrious lack of interest or subtlety by Allen himself. Los Angeles is shot as little more than a series of pretty postcards – it’s a town composed of nothing but beautiful houses, ritzy movie palaces, and sandy beaches – that would have seemed fake even for the time.
When Bobby returns to New York later on, reality intrudes a bit more, with the occasional back alley shot or glimpse of his parents’ cramped Bronx tenement. But for the most part, the New York section of the film resides in a swinging night club where the gowns are sparkling, the champagne always flowing, and everything is as real as, well, a film set.
As eventually becomes clear, there's probably a reason for this. Once again, Allen is writing about the yawning gap between dream and reality, that which is achievable and not. This is a drum he’s been beating for some time, from the underage love story of Manhattan (where the sweet, stoic, and nearly child-like Mariel Hemingway is queasily used as a kind of romantic ideal) to the overblown Fellini-circus metaphor of Shadows and Fog. It’s a theme that might have rang louder and more true if he had gotten around to it sooner instead of spending so much time dropping references to old-time movie stars.
Café Society is torn between the light romantic comedy that Allen occasionally fools the audience into thinking it’s getting and a broader drama about the perils of ambition and desire. The film’s biggest issue is that the former is rarely romantic or funny and the latter never half as provocative as it needs to be. In between tracking Bobby’s fumbling pursuit of Vonnie and his disenchantments, Allen also ham-fistedly shoves in extra material about Bobby’s family, particularly his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll).
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been a bad thing. Stoll exudes a droll yet charming menace; it helps that he’s one of the few contemporary actors who doesn’t look ridiculous with a cocked fedora and antagonistically dangling cigarette. But when the main thrust of the story is clearly the back and forth of Bobby and Vonnie, Allen’s continual cutting back to and narrating of Ben’s exploits (putting his enemies in cement is a recurrent pseudo-gag) as one of the neighborhood’s “tough Jews” never builds to anything. Instead of a developed subplot, it all reads as so much excess period color. The waste of talent is as apparent as it is with the thinly sketched characters Allen tosses at Blake Lively and Parker Posey, who can do little more than pose and dazzle in a number of smashing outfits.
To say that Allen is coasting with Café Society is almost too simple. His writing is all declarations of the obvious and the pacing hazy at best, with little of the richly considered badinage that makes up Allen’s best films. A lot of work went into this production, from Vittorio Storaro’s bright and luscious cinematography to the sunshine-lacquered production design by Santo Loquasto. In the final stretch, just when all the strands of Allen’s story seem to be drifting off into the ether, he finally starts to pull a few of them into something resembling a theme having to do with dreams and illusions. He also gets that one good joke off. Like all the best ones, it comes with a sting.
Bobby’s father Marty (Ken Stott) and mother Rose (the great and dry Jeannie Berlin) are having one of the late-night discussions about death that people used to have in Allen’s films. Marty says that he’s not too worried about it. What’s the point? “That’s because you’re too stupid to understand the implications,” Rose replies.
Maybe sometime in the future, Allen could follow up on that gag. There’s a whole film there.