Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Through much of his career the narrative around Woody Allen is that he’s a good writer with a strong flair for directing actors but that he’s been kind of indifferent about his films’ visual style. I don’t know that this narrative was ever true but in the last couple of years this accusation has seemed particularly inaccurate. Unlike most of the films in his long career Allen’s last three movies have all been shot in widescreen and he’s more often than not been working with A-list cinematographers like Darius Khondji and Vilmos Zsigmond. For his latest movie he’s working with another major DP, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who helmed beautiful movies like The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor. This also differs from the average Woody Allen movie in that it’s a period piece. This is far from unprecedented in Allen’s filmography but it clearly has a larger budget than something like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Bullets Over Broadway and it draws a lot more attention to its set decoration and costuming. All of this is not to say that Woody Allen has suddenly turned into David Fincher, he hasn’t, but he’s clearly continued to challenge himself in certain ways as a director even if he doesn’t always get credit for it. So the movie looks great when compared to the rest of his films, the question then is if the narrative is worthy of this extra effort.
Set sometime during the 1930s, the film follows a young New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who has traveled to Hollywood planning to find work with his uncle Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell). Upon arrival he quickly learns that Phil doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with him but does ask his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the young man around town. He soon forms a friendship with Vonnie and quickly falls for her. However, she rejects his advances, saying that she is in a relationship with a reporter who “travels a lot.”
On the “serious to farcical” spectrum of Woody Allen movies this probably sits somewhere towards the middle like most of his movies but maybe leaning towards the less comedic. It has some decent chuckle inducing moments here and there but it’s fairly sincere in its interest in relationship dynamics and actually has a bit of a dark streak when it deals with a sub-plot about Bobby’s older brother who appears to be a violent gangster by trade. First and foremost though it’s a movie about a love triangle and, on a more thematic level, it’s about missed opportunities and regrets and the perils of using too much logic when deciding who you choose as a mate. In fact I kind of suspect that movie is meant as a sort of coded defense of Allen’s much criticized marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. Whenever he’s asked about that particular tabloid scandal Allen has always said something along the lines of “I know it sounds crazy but the heart wants what it wants.” With this movie he’s created two characters who do not follow what their hearts want, marry for all the logical reasons, and they end the film regretting what could have been. It certainly isn’t a one-to-one analogue with Woody Allen’s own situation but I’m pretty sure it was in the back of his mind when he wrote it. There was a similar theme running through his 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and I’m kind of surprised that more people didn’t pick up on it there.
Beyond that little reading and beyond the pretty sets and costumes, Café Society is a pretty average Woody Allen movie. Jesse Eisenberg generally avoids being a Woody Allen stand-in, which is nice, but he does it by just kind of doing his usual “awkward guy shtick,” which kind of makes sense in the role early on but not so well in later scenes. The film also has a handful of sub-plots and elements that kind of never get a payoff. For instance there’s an early scene involving a hooker named Candy, which is actually a fairly funny scene, but it doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in the plot and doesn’t really get brought back up at all. The whole gangster brother plot line also never really seems to fully integrate. It takes up a lot of screen time but it actually has very little to do with the course of the main story at the end of the day even though it is kind of interesting in its own right. I’m something of a Woody Allen completist, I haven’t seen all his movies but I’m well on my way. As such my standards for what makes a Woody Allen movie “good” or “worth seeing” are maybe a little different than a general audience member’s standards would be. This one provided me with a couple variations on his usual formula and for me that’s enough to make it kind of interesting. Others’ mileage will probably vary.