Increasingly throughout his later career, Woody Allen has welcomed the perception of his movies courting the Jazz Age. A ragtime clarinetist himself during the off-season, it is easy to denote how his filmography resembles less that of a tortured artist than an old pro riffing on classic melodies he’s played a dozen times over dozens more movies. In that vein, it’d be very simple to write off Café Society as just another jam session with his favorite fixations.
Yet, by the third act of this latest mashup of those ever vintage topics—be it the conflict between New York and LA, life and death, or love and age differences—it somehow harmonizes together into a surprisingly effective medley. If the player is merely goofing around with his preferred chords, this new arrangement has a light and distinctly pleasant appeal.
The story itself could be construed at a glance as the last half of Annie Hall transported to the 1930s by way of Bullets Over Broadway. And that first impression would be the correct one. Hence why Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) has such an awkward time when he makes the jump from the earthy mundanity of his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn to the glitz and glamour of Golden Age Hollywood. And this isn’t just Hollywood at the height of its pre-war glories, but the fantasy one where everyone at all the parties knew Ginger Rogers and would dance the night away next to their illuminated pools with Fred Astaire.
It is in this daydream that Bobby’s uncle Phil (Steve Carell) has climbed to the top of the heap as a cutthroat agent, which is all the more impressive considering this was an era where actors were more pampered indentured servants to their studios than free agents. Upon arrival, Phil gets a job for his misanthropic nephew despite the lad preferring to wear plaid shirts over tailored tuxedos. The gig also comes with scintillating perks too, like having direct and daily contact with Phil’s secretary, Vonny (Kristen Stewart).
Having played romantic foils several times before, Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters are not-so-shockingly smitten, and with genuine chemistry to boot. But that’s bad news for both since Vonny is also seeing Uncle Phil on the side, even though he is 20 years her senior and married—and even though there is a decided lack of chemistry between Carell and Stewart (but maybe that’s just Hollywood?). So, as Vonny is torn in two directions by the boy and the man, Bobby is also pulled back to New York by the call of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Indeed, in the other nearly separate half of the story, Bobby might have found a path into high society that isn’t through LA’s sycophantic wilderness, thanks to the kindness of a savvy fashion mogul (Parker Posey) and Bobby’s brother, who has a much more honest way of doing business than showfolk. Granted, that said brother (Corey Stoll) is a gangster, and the said business is with the mafia, but at least he’s sincere while putting you to bed in wet cement.
With such a bewildering pull between east and west, tommy guns and Tinseltown, Bobby finds himself caught between his longing for Vonnie and the success of starting up a jazzy nightclub in Manhattan. (The previous owner didn’t want to sell, but the funny thing is he then signed it over and disappeared overnight. Imagine that?)
By just trying to condense all the plot threads into a synopsis, it becomes clear that Café Society has an unwieldy and honestly fractured narrative. Nevertheless, there is something charming about it since, at its core, it’s much ado about the same primal concerns that have driven Allen mad for over 40 years. As aforementioned, the classic contrast between the east and west coasts is at play throughout the picture, but at the end of the day, it is a rather bemusing and melancholy love story.
Eisenberg has already proven he can play Allen’s younger self before in To Rome with Love and has only improved with time in this second go-round next to the neurotic auteur. Whether he can step into the 1930s is immaterial since he is really stepping into the posture of most of Allen’s protagonists: men who are never satisfied with life, because one day soon it’ll end. His chemistry with Stewart also ever crackles, making up for the fact that she might not so easily slip into 1930s Hollywood glitz, especially the higher up the west coast “café society” she climbs.
Theirs is a complicated affair that for once plays the age difference between Allen protagonists as something borne more out of pragmatism than love. Still, it haunts Eisenberg’s Bobby even after he meets a new flame played by Blake Lively, who doesn’t get much to do but looks fabulous in ‘30s couture while doing it (it is easy to imagine that if born in another era, she’d have wound up in a Hitchcock thriller).
These elements also drip into Bobby’s home life in Brooklyn, which is narrated by Allen’s voiceover and looks suspiciously like how he depicted his own boyhood with an even younger doppelganger in the same setting of Radio Days. That preoccupation with retracing this well-worn geography, and blending them into a fairly innocuous handful of cinematic confetti still packs a potent blast of surprisingly bittersweet nostalgia. It seems the filmmaker, in his own small way, can still comment on lives torn asunder by the impulses of the “heart.”
Still, the best elements are the humor, which is on full display in a screenplay stockpiled with perfectly sardonic one-liners. Among the best are when Bobby’s brother-in-law visits the Manhattan nightclub for New Year’s Eve and, ever lost in his abject moralistic whining, asserts that “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.”
Similarly, Corey Stoll needs to be in every Allen comedy for now on, because after appearing as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris and here again as a tough Jewish gangster (think Meyer Lansky), it is clear that he has carved out a niche as Allen’s alpha male id unleashed.
Ultimately, Allen revisits many such familiarities from previous work in Café Society, but they are all disarmingly alluring in their new orchestrations, intentionally drowning out the sound of a soul never learning anything with time but how to accept age and dissatisfaction as the light ever dims.