It’s an interesting time to follow the work of Woody Allen. His half-dozen feature films in as many years have been critically praised (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine) and slammed (To Rome with Love, Irrational Man) in equal measure. His life was recapped in a 3-hour PBS documentary in 2011, but that was hardly the end-point of his career. in 2016, he made his debut as a television director in the Crisis in Six Scenes series for Amazon Studios. With CAFÉ SOCIETY, there’s a distinct return to form for Allen, even if that form is a wholly familiar one.
The plot itself could not be more Allenesque. Set in the 1930s, New York native Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) heads out west to Los Angeles where he gets a job running menial tasks for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell). However, he soon finds himself falling for Phil’s secretary Veronica, nicknamed Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), despite her “journalist boyfriend.” However, when the identity of her lover becomes apparent, Bobby heads back east to run an exclusive nightclub with his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), meeting beautiful divorcée Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively) in the process.
It’s hard to criticise a film for being too consciously like a Woody Allen film, when the filmmaker himself set the standard for his own whimsy almost 50 years ago. Coming off the intellectually focused Irrational Man, the mostly lighthearted CAFÉ SOCIETY is filled with some incredibly funny moments. An impassioned conversation between Carell and Stewart that’s constantly interrupted by mundane interactions is some seriously sharp writing, the kind of thing that wouldn’t look out of place in his “early, funny” comedies. By the same token, the over-the-top portrayal of a stereotypical family is laid on pretty thick, as though it is a hangover from those same highly-constructed films of Allen’s so-called “golden age.”
Allen continues to attract top-notch actors to his films, working with one of his largest budgets in years. Eisenberg once again shows that he is a convincing proxy for Allen, stopping just short of imitation in his earnest neuroses. A subdued Carell gives a mostly straight performance as the Hollywood bigwig, and Blake Lively simply oozes old Tinseltown elegance. Kristen Stewart initially feels like a walking anachronism, like a modern character who has stepped through the portal and into The Purple Rose of Cairo. Yet as the film progresses, she too becomes as much a part of the titular society as the rest of the sycophants Allen skewers, almost playing two distinct characters by the film’s end.
CAFÉ SOCIETY is one of Allen’s most beautiful and stylish-looking films to date. Legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, known for his photography for Bernardo Bertolucci, Francis Ford Coppola and Warren Beatty to name a few, collaborates with Allen for the first time for spectacular results. The film opens on a beautiful blue-tinged poolside party sequence, and continues on as a highly stylised snapshot of an era. A love-letter to the films of the 1930s, with references to a slew of titles and stars such as Rudolph Valentino, there’s always a lush, golden glow to scenes surrounding Carell in particular. With glory shots of the New York skyline, it’s almost like a Woody Allen fan film.
The film’s conclusion is as unassuming as the Windsor typeface and black backgrounds Allen favours for his credits. Despite all the moving parts, and healthy doses of comedic charm, there’s a melancholic thought left unfinished by the end. It’s as though Allen was simply done with picture, or perhaps felt there was nothing else left to say on the topic. Either way, it’s an enjoyable outing while it lasts, and definitely one for the film literate fans in the audience.