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“Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”
Here’s what Café Society tells us about Allen. He would like to travel back in time. I should’ve got that with Midnight in Paris (2011), in which the Woody protagonist actually does travel to the Jazz Age. The clue was in how much better that film was than the films since, right up until Café Society, which is set in Hollywood in the thirties, where beige suits and Count Basie reign supreme, and where Hollywood bigwigs hold court, see.
This is where our plot begins, as Allen’s narration sets the scene, poolside, with Hollywood producer Phil (a portly Steve Carrell) midway through a self-aggrandising anecdote. Allen’s read-from-a script delivery is a tad clumsy, and its not helped by sounding like it was recorded on an Amiga 600, but does a decent job of setting the scene nonetheless. Phil takes a call – he’s always taking calls – he’s glad; he’s expecting a call from Ginger Rogers after all. But it’s not Ms Rogers, nor is it any voice he wants to hear; it’s his sister from back in the real world, the Bronx. He’s informed that his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), whose existence itself Phil can barely recall, is on his way down to Hollywood to make it big. In lieu of Uncle Phil, who is far too busy to show his own nephew around town, Bobby has his socks knocked off by the smart and droll Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), if not Hollywood itself, reporting to his brother: “I’m kind of half bored, half fascinated.” The fish out of water pair would be a perfect match if it were not for, yeah, Uncle Phil. A love triangle ensues in a plot as predictable as our hero’s downfall and as old as the screenplay’s setting.
Bobby is the Woody of the film, an easy fit for Eisenberg who has been delivering comic, angsty performances in the lead since the excellent The Squid and The Whale (2005). Kristen Stewart too does well in a role infused with hints of Woody. Her character is slick, smart and struggling between two loves. The passages involving Stewart in which Woody takes on the subject of simultaneous love is where Cafe Society is at its most interesting. There are genuinely interesting arguments regarding being in love with two different people at the same time within the dialogue, and Stewart is convincing in her rationale. Carrell too is in good form, not missing a beat with the japes, and coming across amiably as “the other man” – no mean feat. In fact, the film’s greatest triumph is this trio of actors, who turn a good, funny script into an excellent and rewarding one. This point was really driven home for me in the closing scene, which could have stunk if it were not for the understated facial work of both Eisenberg and Stewart, tying the story’s lasting message together nicely.
There’s all the usual Allen stuff, of course. Even the interludes Allen likes to take from the plot, which are either worth it or very not worth it. I think most of his films over the last twenty-five years have been true to that. One such occasion in which the meandering is more than worthy of its place is an early set-piece in which a skittish first-time prostitute comes up against our own nervous protagonist, who is “not in the mood” because she’s late. The neurotic counterparts have met their match. The scene was so funny (Prostitute: Don’t you want to try me? Bobby: Listen, I’m so lonely I would have been happy just to talk, but now I’m even too tired for that.) and the pair so enjoyable together, it’s a shame that the match-up isn’t revisited later on. Instead, the only other breakaway set-piece interrupts what is at that point a narrative well into its flow, and fails to deliver to the same standard. Thankfully, Café Society isn’t short on laughs in general, especially in the movie’s opening gambit, which is the best thirty minutes of an Allen picture this century. I won’t ruin the vintage one-liners by repeating them here, but rest assured they’re there. After that, Woody’s voiceover becomes a clumsy hindrance, and along the way there’s some silly and even cringeworthy references – a shame, because the earlier Barbara Stanwyck cameos are purposeful.
Late period Allen is suited to films set around about the time of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He knows it well. At times the film isn’t just charming, but full of grace, kindness, and, outside of the whimsy of the story, even occasionally poignant. The naive glamour of Bel Air, doe-eyed movie stars, and New York nightclubs provides a natural milieu for Woody’s false pathos: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the examined one is no bargain.” Someone at a nightclub tells us. Make no mistake; this is Allen well and truly inside his comfort zone. It’s about as far away from Stardust Memories (1980) as you’ll get, but if recent less-controlled offerings are to go by, I’ll take this version of late-period Woody over last year’s mess in Irrational Man (2015). Woody Allen is not 40. He’s not aching with heartbreak and he’s not under Fellini’s spell. He either thinks he knows who he is, or doesn’t care if he ever finds out anymore. He’s 80. He’s inspired by slow mornings with coffee, and jazz, and stories of classic Hollywood, and cute details of that period, and I’m thankful for that because Café Society is as pleasurable for it as it is doleful.
Don’t get me wrong, to enjoy this film quite as much as I did, you need to be one of two things: a Jazz Age aficionado or a Woody Allen fan, and preferably both. But it’s a tight film, much tighter than I’ve come to expect of recent Woody Allen films, and in that way, you don’t need to be a gushing, balding, nostalgia victim to enjoy it. A warming, satisfying picture.