It seems to be the point in Woody Allen’s career where he is pivoting into more “immersion in the aesthetic” territory rather than a more in depth examination into the public consciousness. His last two films, Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man, attempt to play with themes he has done before, but to lackluster efforts. In his new film, Cafe Society, Allen seems to ditch any attempt to examine society and moves his attention to swimming in the depths of another period and time with the comedic wit and neurotic charm that has made his best movies so everlasting.
Time will tell if Cafe Society has the staying power of a Radio Days or Broadway Danny Rose, but it sure has a similar verbal spell over it.
Cafe Society follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who has come to Los Angeles from New York in the 1930s in an attempt to make something of himself and escape his drab life of working for his father. His uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), is a wheeling and dealing agent in Hollywood and sets Bobby up with a simple gig running errands for him. He also introduces him to his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who Bobby immediately becomes smitten with. Sadly, she is with another man and Bobby ends up leaving LA defeated to go work in New York at his gangster brother, Ben’s (Corey Stoll), recently purchased nightclub.
As the Allen stand-in, Eisenberg seems much more at ease than his previous attempt in To Rome with Love. He captures the neuroticism with a twinge of charm that became a staple of Allen’s own performances throughout his career, but allows it to feel very much his own. Eisenberg has always excelled as that partially disconnected loner in The Social Network or Zombieland, and even recently in American Ultra, and it seems natural that he would slide into the Woody Allen role and be at home. The same can’t be said for his romantic counterpoint, Kristen Stewart, who is much more stilted and seems like she is doing a poor impression of Mia Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo or even Hannah and Her Sisters.
Carell is solid in his part as well, but the biggest takeaways from the cast are found in Bobby’s family — his mother (played by Jeannie Berlin), his father (Ken Stott), and Stoll as his brother. The casting of Berlin and Stott may be Allen’s most spirited for a pair of parents since Annie Hall and the two actors riff off each other as if this were a direct sequel from the early scene in that 1977 film where a young Alvy reveals his reservations about what happens after we die and the lack of reason to care.
Stoll, who also stole the show in Midnight in Paris as Ernest Hemingway, brings that dynamic screen presence again and becomes an immediate joy to watch as he performs heinous act after heinous act as a low level mob member in New York City. He tosses out Allen’s dialogue with such natural ease that it is a wonder we haven’t found more hothead, gangster-type roles for him previously.
Working with Allen for the first time is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and he brings a more open aesthetic to Cafe Society than we have seen in the past in Allen’s films, which seem more boxed in and organized. Storaro moves the camera more freely here, and there seems to be more open space within the parameters of the scenes and allows for the film to feel much more lively and gigantic — a quality that hasn’t always been apart of Allen’s previous work.
Compared to other films like Annie Hall or Manhattan where Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis seemed to capture the restraints of modern life in New York City, Storaro and Allen seem much more free in 30s Los Angeles and the nightlife of Manhattan. It is some of the best camerawork in Allen’s films recently and makes the world seem much more open and fluid.
Cafe Society seems to also have the verbal strength of Allen’s earlier work, which was a quality that was vastly lacking in his last two movies. It does allow for moments in the classic Hollywood system, with references for cinephiles to stars of the age, but the film lacks the depths of his greatest work. It would probably find its home in the middle tier of his work, which is not a slight on the movie since his last two have been near the bottom.
At this point, Allen seems to be relatively hit or miss, and this is most definitely a hit. The characters are lively, the script is delightful, and the romance has its moments of true passion. Eisenberg fields a strong performance in the lead role, even if overshadowed by the stellar work of Berlin, Stott, and Stoll, and for the most part, Cafe Society is as delicious as the wining and dining being done on screen.