No one could reasonably expect that Woody Allen’s 47th film Café Society would be some enormous trend-breaking statement, somehow pointing the way to the next 47 films. His movies are mixed up in nostalgia and romance and the self-perpetuating critical discussion about each new one, which has come along once every year for at least the last three decades, is of whether or not it’s a return to form or evidence of a decline.
His breakthrough hits of the last decade, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine, are elevated into the former category, but most everything else seems to get dismissed as a cinematic fixture. If you’ve been a fan or viewer for any length of time, it’s a bit like going to the same barber, getting the same annual haircut and hearing the same stories about the same preoccupations and neuroses. Café Society doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does find Allen experimenting with the technical aspect of his films in rewarding ways.
In the 1930s, young Jewish jeweller Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) sets out from the Bronx to find his fortune in the film industry. Hollywood producer and power player Phil Stern (Steve Carell) gets a call from his sister Karen (Sheryl Lee) to let him know that her son is coming to Tinseltown looking for work. With little time or patience for his nephew, Phil foists Bobby on his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to keep him entertained.
The two fall in love, but Vonnie has recently been embroiled in an affair with a married man who’s taking his sweet time in leaving his wife, and the young couple’s intense romance ends in heartbreak. Meanwhile, back east, the eldest Dorfman son, Ben (Corey Stoll), owns a nightclub, which gives Bobby a chance to continue his dalliance with the seductive and glamorous ‘café society’ of the era.
This new one is less sketchy but more aimlessly nostalgic than 1987’s Radio Days, in which Allen elaborately paid tribute to the non-visual medium of the 20th century through a series of vignettes. As in that film, Allen never appears in Café Society, but serves as an omniscient narrator, channelling a story that looks backwards into something representing forward motion.
A good experiment needs a constant or two and aside from the narration and the timeless Windsor font opening titles, other tropes are present and correct. Most notably, Eisenberg is the director’s most appropriate younger acting surrogate yet, collaborating with him for the second time, after 2010’s To Rome With Love. He’s well suited to the fast-talking patter and hand wringing than previous obvious stand-ins John Cusack and Owen Wilson and after his franchise roles this year, it’s nice to see him in his element, working with some sturdy (or at least coherent) material.
But as mentioned, other variables are mixed up. It’s the first film Allen has shot on digital cameras and it also happens to be the most visually interesting and technically impressive film that he’s made in decades. His ‘return to form’ films tend to get recognition at the Oscars, but that’s usually in the writing and acting categories, whereas this one ought to be a lock for Cinematography and Costume Design nominations come February.
Vittorio Storaro already has an Oscar for Apocalypse Now, and here he takes full advantage of the way in which the period has been recreated, from Santo Loquasto’s production design to Suzy Benzinger’s costumes, to plunge us into an irresistible vision of the past. Allen and his long time editor Alisa Lepselter indulge in a few old-timey film transitions too, for added flavour.
Outside of the visual feast on offer, the real star of the show is, unexpectedly, Kristen Stewart and if you only know Stewart for one thing, then this is the perfect time to wake up and look at what she’s been doing for the last five years. In a film in which Blake Lively, Parker Posey and Anna Camp all have much too minor roles (Woody’s gonna Woody), Stewart sparkles as Vonnie, breaking out of the usual type of female characters who unrealistically fetishise the author surrogate’s neuroses. It helps that she has long established chemistry with Eisenberg and the two of them even played characters in a similar situation in 2009’s Adventureland, but she lights up the screen as she has never been allowed to do before.
Elsewhere, there’s a streak of gallows humour that strings together various sub-plots, most often centred around Ben. Stoll, who was so good as Hemingway in Midnight In Paris, is the unpredictable driving force behind some sporadic bursts of violence (within the bounds of a 12A, but still graphic for the director), which serve to make a rather less genteel movie than the title would suggest.
The narration gets very grating very quickly, but the dialogue remains as sharp as ever, even when it takes detours into Socratic wisdom that may not have sounded pat at the time that the film is set, but has since been transcribed on fridge magnets. But mostly, there’s an underlying sadness that lends some much needed context to what might otherwise have been so much nostalgic pageantry and it gets away with taking its time by gathering emotional momentum as it goes on.
Café Society may be the best looking movie that Woody Allen has ever made and in that regard, it stands stridently apart from the usual chunter about the quality of the latest cinematic haircut. Even though it’s not possessed of any particular narrative drive, it belongs in the upper bracket, thanks to the gorgeous visuals, a bewitching turn from Stewart and solid Woody-work from Eisenberg. It’s more fluid than we’ve come to expect from a filmmaker as prolific and experienced as Allen and it goes down more smoothly than his more preoccupied pieces.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.