Most of the Things To Say about late-period Woody Allen films are also Things To Say once more about Café Society, and while I’m not going to run through the same points for the umpteenth time, I will begin by saying that the director’s rigid, unshakeable adherence to the 90-minutes-and-out running time is a little frustrating on this occasion, purely because I was actually enjoying Café Society and could have stood another 15 or 20 minutes at least. The length of the film means that this particular story feels rushed at times, though one might charitably describe this latest work as ‘typically breezy’. Presumably during the editing process, in order to keep the running time to a minimum, a fair amount of material was cut out that would have fleshed-out some of the figures in this story; that probably explains why Allen felt the need to add his own narration to explain away certain issues relating to the characters (something that intrudes rather clunkily and wouldn’t be necessary in a longer film, in which the story had room to breathe).
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. This is another light and droll romantic comedy – better than the last two, Magic In The Moonlight and Irrational Man – in which Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, newly-arrived in LA during the 1930’s, having grown up in New York; opposite him Kristen Stewart is Vonnie, PA to Steve Carell’s movie mogul (and Bobby’s uncle) Phil, and the lady tasked with showing Bobby around town. Bobby falls in love with her and she follows suit, eventually, but circumstances mean that their relationship ends abruptly and eventually both choose different partners, though each still holds a torch for the other. In Hollywood Phil’s a big player, and he lets everyone know it, constantly dropping names at his lavish parties, to which he invites his younger nephew; back home the most notable member of Bobby’s immediate family is older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster-on-the-rise in New York, who eventually installs Bobby as his nightclub manager. Though they’re in different industries – and thankfully Allen doesn’t try to make any kind of obvious movie-producers-are-also-crooks parallel between the two – they do serve as benefactors of sorts to Bobby: both men give him a job and make sure he gets connected to all the right people. The action duly flits back-and-forth between the east coast and the west before Bobby moves home and Allen settles on New York, where the rest of Bobby’s family live.
The main characters change during the course of the film, though it’s a bit of a stretch to accept the 180 degree turnarounds that Allen foists upon them. Bobby is the typical jittery and neurotic Allen character when he first appears, attempting to broker a deal with Anna Camp’s novice prostitute in an early, hilarious scene; yet later, when he’s schmoozing the high-profile nightclub guests, he’s gregarious and confident, charming Blake Lively’s model Veronica with apparent ease. By contrast Vonnie is initially down-to-earth and openly unimpressed by the glitz, glamour and big names of la-la land, but when she turns up in New York at a later date she has undergone a (barely credible) volte-face, and gives Phil a run for his money in the namedropping stakes. If Allen pushes the screenplay’s credibility with these personality swings – it’s difficult to buy into the idea of an Eisenberg character being the life and soul of a party in any movie – then he does at least surround the main players with others who remain constant: Bobby’s bickering Jewish parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott), his sister and her partner (Sheryl Lee, Stephen Kunken) and his friends Rad and Steve (Parker Posey, Paul Schneider).
It’s a bittersweet tale (with an emotional ending), and a nostalgic, rose-tinted look back at 1930’s Hollywood and New York, though Allen’s callbacks to the period do feel a little rote at times (‘here’s Spencer Tracy’s house…’, etc.). DP Vittorio Storaro shoots mainly during the golden hour, and the LA-based scenes in particular are bathed in early-evening sunlight, whereas by contrast the New York-set scenes are mostly interiors, save for a few minutes in Central Park and a brief nod to his earlier classic Manhattan. The production design is excellent, with a glorious nightclub set and Phil’s house and office being the highlights. The acting’s quite good. Carell impresses during a couple of his longer scenes but is slightly bland in others, somewhat frustratingly. Eisenberg is Eisenberg again, but I’m a fan and haven’t tired of his nervy, quickfire line reading yet. Stewart is pure movie star, and this performance caps a stellar couple of years; she’s worth seeing in anything, though like anyone there’s always going to be the occasional blip. From what I can gather she still has plenty of detractors online who seem to associate her with Twilight and little else. It really is their loss. Everyone else has their moments, a scene or two in which to briefly shine. Allen’s writing is fairly sharp, too, I’m pleased to report; he’s less damning about the movie industry than one might expect him to be in a film like this, and predictably most of the good zingers come during the scenes depicting everyday Jewish family life. Hardly groundbreaking material, but I found it quite funny. I’m more surprised by the love story he has written, which feels much more heartfelt and well-realised than some of the uninvolving flings that have formed the basis of his recent films; you can tell he actually cares about the characters. The decisions they make here are not taken lightly, and relationships in this film matter, whether they’re ongoing, whether they’re in flux or whether they have ended.
Directed by: Woody Allen.
Written by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Paul Schneider, Sheryl Lee, Steven Kunken.
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro.
Editing: Alisa Lepselter.
Running Time: 96 minutes.