Allen’s ‘Café Society’ is not a golden film, but it is a valuable one
Written/directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, and Parker Posey
“Café Society” – During woeful times, Americans tend to turn to movies for escape, and the Great Depression is a prime example. This marriage between big screen entertainment and the economically-challenged general public soared in the 1930’s, and it is no coincidence that Hollywood’s Golden Age began during this time.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) – an eager 20-something - is experiencing woe of his own. Wanting to leave his father’s struggling business in New York City, he packs his bags and looks to Hollywood for hope. Actually, Bobby is looking for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) for hope, help and a job, or at least some contacts, to start a new life in the City of Angels. Phil is a wealthy and connected Hollywood agent, and after some prodding, he hires Bobby as his assistant, and this young New Yorker immediately experiences the glitz and glamour of Tinsel Town.
Writer/director Woody Allen opens the door to this world in which everyone dresses for success and speaks at the top of their game with an “elevator speech” ripely prepared for anyone and everyone at a poolside party, a private film screening or a high-powered lunch. Allen establishes and captures a clear sense of this tone with absolutely beautiful settings within the playgrounds of the rich and famous, and he also plays with colors and lighting. For example, at one of Phil’s daytime events, everyone in attendance wears some form of yellow, gold or mustard, and at an evening event, the entire posh backyard environment carries a cool, but inviting, shade of electric blue.
The film is pleasing to the eye and so is a budding romance between Bobby and Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Vonnie gives Bobby ample warning about her heart beating for another fella, but he does not surrender his efforts, and Allen captures some simple and sweet moments of an imperfect connection. Allen’s writing connects during Bobby and Vonnie’s conversations and also between bit players and family members as well. Bobby’s mother (Jeannie Berlin) and brother (Corey Stoll) are especially good and offer several comedic high points in the picture.
It is a little puzzling, however, that during the first half of the movie, Allen spends a significant amount of time on Bobby’s family back in New York, when the focus should be in Los Angeles. The reason becomes clearer well into the second act, but the film suffers at times during the first hour, because it feels like meandering storytelling. From a storytelling perspective, Allen takes up the narration, so his actual voice appears in the film, as well as his figurative one through the lead, Bobby. Eisenberg successfully carries the director’s torch with this character’s combination of anxiety and hope towards a potential path of career and romantic attainment. A budding career in California and soulful relationship with Vonnie could be in the cards, but they both will not be easy to reach.
Bobby’s brother-in-law quotes Socrates and says, “The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.”
For all the levity that the film brings, Allen slyly inserts emotional gravitas around this specific comment and offers something deeper than initially meets the eye. One could argue that 2016 is a time of woe as well, and Allen’s film delivers some mild escapism and an unexpected reminder of an important life lesson. “Café Society” may not be a golden film, but it is a valuable one. (3/4 stars)
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.