“Café Society” does nothing if not prove how capable and entertaining a filmmaker Woody Allen is … or was … or can be. If this film was made in his 1970s or ’80s or even early ‘90’s heyday, it might be considered a classic — or at least a lesser known gem in his vast filmography. Instead, it suffers from what all of his late period films have suffered from: fatigue and overfamiliarity.
If you’ve seen a handful of Allen’s films, you’ve seen them all. Infidelity, a sweet-and-sour perspective on the past, neuroses, crime, morality, existential misery — all of the director’s trademarks, calling cards and preoccupations are here on full display. But that doesn’t stop “Café Society” from being one of the more delightful films in the director’s career.
Set in the 1930s, the film follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of a Jewish jeweler from the Bronx, as he moves out to Hollywood to make a career for himself, hoping to receive some help from his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a high powered agent. His uncle sets him up as his personal errand boy, and Bobby soon falls in love with Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). But there’s a wrinkle. Vonnie has a boyfriend.
What follows is a story of how nostalgia and rosy illusions about the past that can bleed into and color the present. It’s fitting for a film set in a golden age that most look back on with perhaps too much reverence. It ends on an oddly touching and melancholy note, one that’s mostly unfamiliar — but not unprecedented — in Allen’s films. So often, Allen’s films succumb to his pessimistic existentialism and nihilistic worldview to the point that the tone can seem downright nasty or severe, with the artist looking at his characters like a disappointed, mean-spirited but ultimately impotent God who sees no redeeming virtue in these people. But here, Allen seems to have a bit more sympathy for his characters. He still sees how flawed humans can be, and he doesn’t seem to see any way for those flaws to be overcome or remedied. But instead of contempt, this evokes sympathy in “Café Society,” a kind of tragic understanding that comes close resembling love for these people he’s written.
And that’s probably the best reason to continue to see Allen’s new films. He makes films so fast and so frequently that the worldviews they express and the meanings they convey can change from film to film, seemingly with the filmmaker’s mood. Allen may not have matured as a filmmaker — or as a person — since the 1980’s, but he does transform and develop as an artist as he goes. That at least makes him an interesting filmmaker, if not a great one.
The script is typical Woody Allen fare, and it’s somewhat lackluster at times, but he seems to be less a writer this time around and instead seems to emphasize his role as a director, an image maker. There’s a liveliness and a vibrancy that’s become a rarity in Allen’s films of late, even the better ones like “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine.” His films have never looked better than this, relishing in the aesthetic pleasures of 1930s Hollywood and New York. Credit must be given to legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, working with Allen for the first time. (It’s also the first time shooting digitally for both men.) Storaro works within his and Allen’s palette to create truly sumptuous images, even in the most unlikely of settings. The digital camera adds new textures and nuances to their styles.
The performances are mostly lovely — and at their worst, competent. Eisenberg seems to be doing his best impression of the director, so much so that I wonder if Allen is actively instructing his recent leading men to act as a surrogate in parts that he’s now too old for. Of course it’s possible that the actors are simply absorbing their director’s tics and mannerisms simply by exposure to him. Stewart gives a lovely, understated performance that benefits from her chemistry with Eisenberg — this is their third pairing after “Adventureland” and “American Ultra” — and Steve Carell is delightful, delivering lines that almost make him a scene stealer.
Ultimately, this is fine film. It’s a rollicking, entertaining jaunt from a filmmaker a bit past his prime but still able to entertain and make us think. The problem with Allen’s later films is they can feel compulsive, like he’s still making movies because he has to or doesn’t know how to do anything else. They lack the spark of his best works. But, as “Café Society” shows, even some of Allen’s lesser works can provide a kind of laughs and enjoyment that’s hard to find elsewhere.