You would be forgiven if you think that Woody Allen’s latest film, CAFÉ SOCIETY, is a melange of scenes and themes you’ve seen before in other films of his. (I’m pretty sure I said the same thing about his last film, IRRATIONAL MAN.) We’ve certainly seen the first half of the story before: Young, neurotic Jew from Brooklyn heads out to Hollywood to seek his fortune, finds he doesn’t like the vacuous lifestyle there and returns to New York. We’ve also seen part of the second half of the story before: Neurotic New York Jew falls for a shiksa (gentile) goddess. And we’ve also seen the scene with the Jewish family at the dinner table before, though this time it plays like something Grammy Hall, Annie Hall’s (albeit perceived to be) anti-Semitic grandmother, would have written. While Alvy Singer’s family could have been a stand-in for my family (and for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of other North American Jewish families), Bobby Dorfman’s (Jesse Eisenberg, THE END OF THE TOUR) family is about as un-Jewish as they come. Oh sure, the Jewish stereotypes are there – Bobby has a gangster brother who runs a very profitable nightclub and a sister who is married to a leftist intellectual, but if you’re going to stereotype American Jews, you need to start with some Manischewitz on the Passover table. And everyone needs to speak over each other… about politics or about some old aunt’s medical condition or ideally both at the same time. The Dorfmans are about as Jewish as Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip (to borrow from another stereotype in an earlier Allen film).
But let’s forgive Allen for just a moment, or at least for the rest of this review. It’s amazing – wonderful even – that at age 80, he is still churning out movies. CAFÉ SOCIETY is his 47th and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He just wrapped up production on a six-episode TV series that he wrote, directed and starred in. (It premieres at the end of this month on Amazon.) And he’s now working on his next film, due out next year, which will star Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake and Jim Belushi. It is said to be another period piece, this time set in New York in the 1950s.
Back to CAFÉ SOCIETY, Bobby Dorfman is the aforementioned neurotic Brooklyn Jew who heads out to Hollywood in the 1930s. There, he gets a job with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell, THE BIG SHORT), who is a very successful Hollywood talent agent. Phil either represents everyone famous or he’s trying to sign them up. Because Phil is so busy taking calls and having meetings with Tinseltown’s A-listers, he pawns Bobby off on his assistant Vonnie, aka Veronica (Kristen Stewart, CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA; STILL ALICE), who happily agrees to show him around town. It doesn’t take long before Bobby develops feelings for Vonnie but she tells him that she already has a boyfriend.
Spurned, sort of, Bobby decides that California is not the place for him and he heads back to New York where he takes a job managing his brother’s popular nightclub. Bobby finds his footing there, rubbing shoulders with the Big Apple’s café society, and there he meets another Veronica (Blake Lively, THE SHALLOWS), who seems way out of his league. He takes her out on their first date to a tiny but ultra-cool jazz club (because it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen film without some jazz music) and, not long after, they marry. Bobby’s life couldn’t be better until, one evening, Vonnie walks into the club with her boyfriend, who is now her husband.
I consider myself to be a Woody Allen fan but his movies of late have been so inconsistent. Though not as bad as TO ROME WITH LOVE, another Allen/Eisenberg collaboration, CAFÉ SOCIETY is nowhere near as good as, let’s say, BLUE JASMINE. Unfortunately, CAFÉ SOCIETY seems like it is two movies shoved together and neither of them has been fully thought through. The first half of the film could have been a romp – a nostalgic look at Hollywood’s Golden Age, much like HAIL, CAESAR! aimed to be. Instead, it misfires with incessant Hollywood name dropping that lacks any purpose, an unlikely friendship between Bobby and a married couple who are friends of Uncle Phil’s, and a creepy subplot that involves a Jewish prostitute. The setup in the second half of the film goes on far too long and, frankly, it is a huge stretch to believe Bobby could have developed into this suave and confident ladies’ man after seeing his nebbishy side so evident before.
Allen himself narrates this tale of misdirected love. Perhaps the narrator is supposed to be Bobby today, and that’s entirely possible since Eisenberg seems to be channelling his inner Allen, but the connection doesn’t come through. Instead, all we have is a very tired, old man’s voice that chafes against the mood the film is trying to convey.
On the plus side, the film is shot beautifully. Three-time Oscar® winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (APOCALYPSE NOW; REDS; and THE LAST EMPEROR) bathes Hollywood in rich cerulean blues, emerald greens and honey golds. How could anyone, much less Bobby, not love seeing those colours every day? Brooklyn, in contrast, is seen in drab browns, pale greens and greys, while the nightclub is awash in crisp reds, white and black. There’s also a stunning scene where Bobby and Vonnie are standing on a bridge in Central Park with the sun coming up over their shoulders. New York has never looked better, except perhaps in another Allen film, MANHATTAN. (That film was shot by long-time Allen collaborator, Gordon Willis, who passed away in 2014.)
All in all, CAFÉ SOCIETY is not a horrible film. It’s just not a very good film. If it wouldn’t be so late in his career, I would suggest that someone tells Woody to aim for quality rather than quantity.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 31:45.)
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