Only recently did I discover and fall in love with the filmmaker that is Woody Allen, but trust me, I’ve been trying to make up for lost time. His iconic settings and larger-than-life plots are coupled with realistic, flawed characters, and it is the realism of the stories that he tells that remind us that life isn’t perfect, but it goes on. His most recent film, Café Society, may have some issues, but it definitely has the trademarks of a Woody film.
In Café Society, New York native Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) moves to Hollywood in the glitz of the 1930s to work for his big-shot producer Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), and falls in love with his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is in love with a married man.
For all their humour, Allen’s stories are always full of achingly real characters, and Bobby’s starry-eyed, often one-sided pursuit of Vonnie’s love is doomed from the beginning, just as Vonnie is destined to never be happy. Her thrill is in the chaase; her flightiness sends her from one man to the other; and her spellbinding nature continues to captivate Bobby even through his marriage to other women, leaving Blake Lively’s Veronica stuck in the middle of a selfish love triangle. Couple this with Bobby’s workaholic uncle with his devastating secrets and his gangster brother who’s always pushing the envelope, and Café Society is pretty damn tragic, especially given his penchant for unresolved, unhappy endings. That is, if it weren’t so funny.
Because Allen’s talent in portraying real life also encompasses its absurdity, and an early, fumbling encounter between Bobby and a call girl sets the tone for both the awkward character and his sometimes bumbling escapades. His family provide much of the comic relief, from Ben’s (Corey Stoll) stylised gang warfare to Evelyn’s (Sari Lennick) neighbour wars, and his sparring Jewish parents (Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin) are a highlight, accompanied by a classic Woody voiceover. Though these scenes make up the majority of the dragging second act, they do allow the film to breathe amidst all the romantic drama in the lead up to the big third act.
Café Society has a wondrous and glamorous sense of time and place: the classic Hollywood architecture and the jazzy, booze-filled parties are a dream, and whether it’s palatial cinemas or suburban Jewish homes, the only thing more alive is the people. As Bobby floats between the glitzy Hollywood social scene and his classy New York night club, Allen’s love for the era and the films of Golden Age Hollywood is infectious.
Leading its star-studded cast is a favourite of mine and Woody Allen regular: Jesse Eisenberg is neurotic and brilliant as Bobby, a classic but enjoyable Woody character, and his chemistry with Kristen Stewart shines, as does she. Her progression from quirky LA secretary to Hollywood socialite is stunning, and the cast around her brings out a charm in her that is delightful to finally see. It’s interesting to, for once, see Steve Carell play the most serious man in the room (and even he wasn’t that serious), and Blake Lively is heartbreaking as the forgotten housewife in the final act, but his hilariously dysfunctional family lighten the tone to give us the homely feeling that Bobby feels in New York.
What I like most about Woody Allen’s films is that his best ones have a message that appeals to the soul and the heart, rather than just the brain. Though Café Society’s message isn’t quite as strong as, say, Midnight in Paris’s (“don’t live in the past too much, or you’ll always long for something more”), Café Society is a wonderfully tragic message that you never forget your first love.
I love this cast so much, so here’s my top five favourite films (and TV shows) starring the cast of Cafe Society:
- Now You See Me – Jesse Eisenberg
- Adventureland – Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg
- Gossip Girl – Blake Lively
- Ant-Man – Corey Stoll
- The Big Short – Steve Carell
Photos taken from IMDb.com: