Woody Allen never met a major city he couldn’t make beautiful and majestic. In his latest feature “Café Society,”—a nostalgic romantic comedy/drama set in the fabulous thirties—we get two for the price of one: New York and L.A.
Lush, sun-drenched shots of affluent L.A. neighborhoods dominate the first half while the sublime New York skyline dominates the second. Beverly Hills mansions with ornate swimming pools, patios and balconies are juxtaposed with exquisite upscale Manhattan penthouses and nightclubs. From a technical standpoint the film is simple yet elegant and neat. Allen seems physically incapable of making a city look less than perfect. Adding to all of this city porn are loving descriptions of said cities—at one point the narrator, Allen himself, says: “a beautiful dusk sky enveloped New York”—upbeat jazz music and a relationship between an older man and a young woman.
We’re in Woody Allen land all right.
Unfortunately, as beautiful as “Café Society” is it can’t help but feel frustratingly surface-level. The cities and the societies within them don’t come alive the way they have in previous Allen films. The two settings feel more like backdrops rather than three-dimensional environments. Additionally, the second half of the movie is a narrative mess, which leaves the viewer with a bitter taste in their mouth.
It’s a shame because the first thirty minutes or so are solid. Naïve neurotic New Yorker Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, playing a younger version of the kind of nebbish character Allen used to play in his movies) moves to L.A and is taken under the wing of his somewhat brash, headstrong uncle Phil (Steve Carell, amusing with a hint of vulnerability), a Hollywood agent. At swanky cocktail parties Bobby is introduced to the Hollywood elite. However he’s more captivated by the down to earth charm of Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s secretary and lover.
Stewart and Eisenberg are the best things about “Café Society.” Stewart continues to show that she’s so far above the “Twilight” franchise, giving a quietly charming and self-assured performance. Vonnie may be soft spoken but she isn’t passive and even though she becomes locked in a love triangle she remains strong and independent minded. Meanwhile, Eisenberg easily slides into the role of fidgety but kindhearted Bobby. It’s the kind of role Eisenberg can play in his sleep.
As a pair they’re effortless, transcendent even. Their flirty, banter-y conversations feel so natural and vivacious. The minute they get together they click and suddenly you want the whole movie to be just them walking around and talking.
But it isn’t.
Aside from the romantic angle, “Café Society” is about the social elite--in Hollywood and later on in Manhattan when Bobby goes back to help run a high-class nightclub-- and how it tries to corrupt these two innocent, genuine kids. Both Bobby and Vonnie are brought into this life and they think it’s what they want. However, in L.A. they feel more at home eating dinner at a shabby “hole-in-the-wall” Mexican restaurant than at a swanky party surrounded by rich folk. In other words, high society may be glamorous but it’s also superficial and unsatisfying. The film’s resolution, while mostly cheerful, has an underlying sense of melancholy and regret. Everything didn’t turn out the way it should have.
This is certainly an intriguing idea but Allen’s touch is often too soft and polite. Because the film looks so magnificent, because there are so many lavish party sequences and because the tone is generally upbeat and jaunty it feels like Allen is more enamored with this lifestyle then critical of it. At one point Bobby says he wants to go back to New York because he finds L.A. to be “nasty” and “boring” and he can’t take all the “backstabbing” but we don’t see anything in the film that would warrant that kind of negative reaction. We see none of the “nastiness” or “backstabbing.”
If Allen is indeed more enamored with this lifestyle than critical that’s fine but his depiction of it is nevertheless shallow. More often than not it’s like we’re viewing a museum diorama. There’s a lot of name-dropping and listing in a lazy attempt to create atmosphere. In L.A., famous Hollywood stars like Paul Muni and Ginger Rogers are mentioned in passing and in New York Allen’s narrator lists the various influential people who frequent the nightclub. In short, we don’t feel like we’re there because Allen doesn’t explore these worlds in great enough depth.
Making things worse, the second half is a total mess—unfocused and rushed. A thriller side plot involving Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is poorly established and hastily resolved. Blake Lively shows up as a rival romantic partner for Bobby and is given absolutely nothing to do and Carrell is sadly pushed off to the side. Additionally, Allen manages to cram in a quick crisis of faith and philosophical conversations about love, death and religion into the mix, which further confuse things. It’s sloppy writing, pure and simple.
Woody Allen continues to write and direct one film a year; a work ethic I admire. However it also means that instead of taking some additional time to polish and refine his screenplays he churns and burns. As a result, he’s made a lot of decent but forgettable pictures. “Café Society” is sadly one of those and outside of Eisenberg/Stewart and the pretty cinematography/ production design there’s not much reason to see it.