Café Society

cafe society 2016

Café Society [2016] is Woody Allen’s love letter to the glamorous social scenes of Hollywood and New York in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg stars as the Woody Allen stand-in, with Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell, costarring.

Cinematic time travel. Much like Midnight In Paris, Café Society is an outlet for Allen’s career-spanning project of dropping characters with modern neuroses into the past. Though his most well-received works find him at home in contemporary Manhattan, Allen has consistently placed versions of his neurotic self-projection in varied historical settings, from 19th-Century Russia in Love and Death to countless historical moments in Zelig. Café Society continues this tradition, with Jesse Eisenberg playing Bobby Dorfman, a young Jewish Manhattanite of the type that Allen has spent half a century portraying or writing. An early scene between Eisenberg and a prostitute drives home the point that despite the mid-1930s setting, Bobby is a man with decidedly late-Twentieth century preoccupations, and though he moves through the Jazz Age world of Café Society with ease, the audience is never allowed to forget that he has at least one toe planted in our modern world.

Tightly plotted, loosely executed. The story of Café Society exists largely as an excuse to have two types of scenes, both of which should be familiar to fans of Woody Allen’s work. We follow young Bobby Dorfman as he relocates from his Bronx home to Hollywood, where his uncle (played by Steve Carell) gives him work at his successful talent agency. It turns out that working as a talent agent entails an endless series of fancy lunches and lavish backyards soirees attended by the cream of 1930s Hollywood, and much of the film takes place during these endless, cocktail-drenched affairs. The other scenes are by necessity more intimate, and take place either between Bobby and Vonnie (Stewart) as they form two sides of what turns into a love triangle or between various members of the Dorfman clan back in New York, most notably Bobby’s gangster brother or his sister and her philosopher husband. The three parallel stories, Bobby’s Career, Bobby in Love, and the Various Dorfman Antics, all weave through one another at various points along the way, yet they never intrude upon one another in a manner that feels false.

Period perfect. One of the benefits of the slightly ramshackle approach to storytelling that Allen adopts in Café Society is that it allows for a lot of period detail to seep in through the edges. The standout character in the film is Bobby’s gangster brother Ben (played with abundant cool by Corey Stoll), who runs the criminal underworld beneath the Bronx. Ben owns a club in New York which becomes a major setting later in the movie, and the shots that swoop through the bar and lounge are some of Allen’s most cinematic, capturing every detail of the immaculate Jazz Age costumery and set-dressing. The rest of the New York Dorfman's represent the working class Jews of the era, and a few of their conversations about faith are among the best of Allen’s career.

Studies in fidelity. Around its halfway point, Café Society shifts into an exploration of another of Woody Allen’s favorite themes, marital fidelity or lack thereof. As Bobby and Vonnie’s relationship becomes complicated by the presence of an old boyfriend, the two are forced to make a series of choices that change how they relate to one another for the rest of the film, and while going into any more detail would constitute a spoiler, suffice it to say that Allen approaches the topic with uncharacteristic maturity. For a filmmaker who has repeated depicted the murder of mistresses in his films, the version of love represented in Café Society is particularly poignant and understated, and the movie’s final scene is one of the most heartfelt moments in all of Allen’s oeuvre.

Café Society is at once a continuation and crystallization of many of the topics and themes that have defined Woody Allen’s decades-long career and is a worthy addition to his body of work.