UK Release Date – 2nd September 2016
Woody Allen’s latest release is a curious period rom-com, in which Jesse Eisenberg plays a young Hollywood hopeful who falls in love with his powerful uncle’s mistress (Kristen Stewart). Set against the backdrop of the glamorously romanticised 1930s, Café Society is visually commanding but lacking in depth and devoid of surprises.
The film begins as Phil Stern (Steve Carell), an influential Hollywood talent agent, agrees to help his nephew Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) with an aspiring career in the film industry. He introduces his protégé to Vonnie (Stewart), and the three become embroiled in a love triangle, of sorts. At the same time we are shown the rise of Bobby’s brother Ben, an archetypal New York gangster, in one of a few curiously pitched subplots.
The acting is a mixed bag of performances, the clear standout being Kristen Stewart. Having shed the critical stigma hanging over her from the Twilight films with accomplished performances in Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria (among others), Stewart is now a reliably winning performer, and her star power is on full show here. While the script seems to solely define Vonnie’s life through her relationships with the two men – don’t hold your breath, Bechdel – Stewart’s glowing charm and charisma go a long way towards fleshing out the character’s existence.
“a curious, sparkly mess”
Disappointingly, the same cannot be said for Eisenberg or Carell. Even at the best of times, Eisenberg’s screen persona is neurotic and a little alienating. When grafted onto Café Society’s transparent Woody Allen surrogate, his shtick tends to particularly grate. Since becoming effectively too old to portray his own protagonists, Allen has trialled a few actors in his own intellectually nebbish shoes, with varying success. Café Society suggests Eisenberg is not the fit he is looking for. The script is also unhelpful in this regard; Bobby is entitled, selfish and more than a bit creepy, pursuing Vonnie with a slight unpleasantness that was not, seemingly, intentional.
Carell, an actor who has taken on more and more interesting roles of late, turns in a particularly vague performance. There is little in Carell’s characterisation to suggest how exactly Phil became such a revered presence. Large plot decisions are made with clumsily realised motivation, and the character on whole is left unexplored. Filling out the cast are a host of choice names from the corners of pop culture, none more welcome than Tony Sirico (The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance.
The film has been criticised for its portrayal of Jewish life; indeed, Bobbie’s New Yorker parents are the height of cliché. That said, they are given the best laughs, and the actors throw themselves into the well worn roles. Allen is no stranger to a Jewish stereotype, and on this ground, at least, we can consider it deliberate. More objectionable is the film’s near-total omission of African-American influence in 1930s Hollywood. Bar for a voiceless jazz backing group, there is hardly a black face on screen. Race is never discussed. Critics have taken issue with this, and, of course, the grievance is legitimate.
Café Society has another big problem. For reasons obvious to anyone who observes when Allen makes news headlines, it is necessary, when watching his output, to effectively divorce the artist from the art. Easier done with, say, Broadway Danny Rose than the ethically compromised Manhattan. Upon the frame of Café Society Allen hangs dialogue so sharp with exophora as to make such a division untenable. That is to say, lines where Phil glibly dismisses the significance of a large age difference, or where Bobby jokes about romantic attraction between non-blood-related relatives, are such transparent statements of personal ethos as to make you squirm in your seat. To approach the controversy as flippantly as he does is jarring and gravely misjudged.
If one person deserves singular and fulsome praise for the film it is Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer. A huge name within the industry, Storaro is perhaps best known for his work on Apocalypse Now. Even in a film as slight as Café Society, the visual pedigree is unmissable. A vast, beautiful skyscape and a candlelit dinner are particular highlights, but the whole film is shot with a dynamism and panache very unusual to Allen’s work. The look merges perfectly, too, with the soundtrack; the director’s infallible ear for jazz being employed with particular appropriateness.
For all the glamour, however, Café Society is unable, or unwilling, to rise above its flaws. The result is a film which flatters to deceive. It may be one of his funnier films in years, and we have surely learned by now not to hold his present output up to his extraordinary past, but even judged on its own merits, Café Society is a curious, sparkly mess.
Image: Lionsgate 2016