Like Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s latest Café Society serves as wish-fulfillment for the classic Allen hero. But instead of an escapist fantasy, one where a modern dweeb gets to cavort his dead literary heroes, this is a period comedy where a young neurotic somehow charms beautiful, sophisticated ingénues who should know better. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wish fulfillment – many filmmakers use their work to indulge their fantasies – except Allen has been doing it consistently for the better part of forty-years. It is too familiar, to the point where jokes and actors suffer for it. The film’s saving grace is cinematographer Vittorio Storaro: this is Allen’s best-looking film in decades.
Allen serves as the narrator, speaking with more confidence than any of his on-screen characters. He introduces us to Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a naive Jewish kid from New York who heads to Los Angeles in the 1930s. His uncle is Phil (Steve Carrell), a Hollywood big shot who runs a talent agency, and Bobby thinks Phil will give him a job. Phil eventually does – he is monumentally busy, but not a monster – and has his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show him around the city. Bobby immediately falls in love with Vonnie, as he must, except she has a boyfriend. We quickly learn that Phil is said boyfriend, even if he’s married, and the film follows this love triangle through all manner of romantic possibilities.
In some strange ways, Allen can be a timid filmmaker. Romance and sex always interest him, and yet he never really dwells on corporeal specifics – both in terms of action and dialogue. His prudish instincts reach a low point early in Café Society, in a scene where Bobby hires a call-girl (Anna Camp). They do not fuck, and instead Bobby chides her life choices. He is especially disappointed when he learns she is Jewish. Allen wants us to laugh at Bobby’s “will they or won’t they” theatrics, except Bobby’s shtick is a touch cruel. The scene is a disaster, a handy distillation for Allen critics when they want to point out he’s out of touch. Most of Café Society is not like this, thankfully, and Allen’s cast find charms through other means.
Vittorio Storaro was the cinematographer for many major films. He worked on Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Reds. In Café Society, he uses light and shadow to make 1930s Los Angeles seem like an escapist, achingly beautiful dream. There is a sequence where Vonnie visits Bobby and the power goes out. Allen’s camera swerves and pushes on Stewart’s face, filming it with so much warm yellow light that she looks, well, like an angel. Storaro carefully composes and photographs so many shots that Café Society it is mandatory viewing for anyone who watches Turner Classic Movies on a regular basis.
The plot of Café Society has been done in countless Allen films, including his recent work, and yet the actors are charming enough to make us care. Eisenberg riffs on type of characters he’s been playing since Roger Dodger, so the real standout is Kristen Stewart. She has genuine charisma and star power, so we fall for her along with Bobby and Phil. While Phil is domineering and Bobby is nervous, Vonnie radiates intelligence and affection – two quantities that most actors cannot combine. Other than the love triangle, there is a comic subplot involving Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who is a gangster. Allen cuts away from Los Angeles to shots of Ben’s crimes, but the subplot gives opportunity to Stoll and other character actors to find countless droll euphemisms for murder. Café Society may be about a hapless young man and his search for love, but it is also – weirdly – Allen’s most violent film.
Bobby eventually leaves Los Angeles, returning to New York, and so Café Society has two distinct halves. In the second half, Bobby again has unfathomable luck. He meets Veronica (Blake Lively), and seduces her in classic Allen fashion: by being aggressive, apologizing for it, then taking her to a jazz club. Allen casts her because it is only in his films that a guy like Eisenberg could have a shot with Stewart or Lively, and yet it is acceptable because Allen uses them to create a thematically rich situation. Café Society ends on a note of nostalgia, but not for the period in which it’s set. Instead, Bobby and Vonnie think about each other: starting a future, for better or worse, means ending the past with the ones who got away. That sort of feeling is timeless, instantly recognizable, and why Allen’s films continue to endure.