By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Woody Allen, U.S., Amazon Studios/Lionsgate
Café Society is a movie of plush period trappings, generously spritzed with wistful, bittersweet mistiness. In other words, it’s what you’re paying for when you go to the semiannual Woody Allen romantic comedy, though it sets itself apart from the rank-and-file with an unusual body count. The film’s events take place over the course of a few years in the early-to-mid 1930s, and between the two American scenes that writer-director Allen has deemed worthy of his attention: California and the Long Island Sound. (In Crimes and Misdemeanors, all you need to know about the career of Allen’s documentarian character is that its highlight has been an “Honorable Mention” at the Cincinnati Film Festival.) The bicoastal back-and-forth is accompanied by travel up and down on the social spectrum, as the movie touches on every strata of assimilated Jewish aspiration and respectability in the same period, from Murder, Inc. and the stink of the streets to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer glamor.
The film, which Allen himself narrates, begins with a tracking shot caressing the edge of a status-symbol swimming pool and the introduction of its owner, one Jew who has incontrovertibly made it, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell), agent and supremely confident confidant to the stars. He is interrupted at one of his regular soirees by a rude reminder of his past, word that his sister’s boy from back in the Bronx, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), is headed westward ho to seek his fortune, and is looking for a job. Once Bobby finally wedges his way through the door of his uncle’s Harry Cohn–like office and gets himself on payroll they get on just fine, though—at least until the kid discovers that the personal assistant he’s fallen in love with, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), is also Uncle Phil’s on-again-off-again lover.
In a city of ostentatious, manorial homes where the under-contract stars have to sweat under their furs in the summer by studio decree, Bobby is taken with Vonnie’s apparent simplicity—the guilelessness that is one of Stewart’s particular second-nature gifts as an actor. She introduces Bobby to a sleepy Mexican restaurant that becomes their regular meeting place, and after Vonnie throws him over for his rich uncle and Bobby retreats to New York with his tail between his legs, we still find him frequenting nice “authentic” little ethnic dives: a Chinese noodle joint; a red-sauce, red-checker tablecloth Italian place where he takes the now-married Vonnie for a “What if?” date on one of her east coast jaunts; the uptown after-hours jazz club where he woos his bride-to-be, Veronica (Blake Lively), a willowy blonde divorcée who wins his heart with casual anti-Semitism. (“It’s true what they say, you people are pushy.”)
These little pockets of undiluted ethnic identity constitute a “real world” away from the cosmopolitan society of the title, much the same from Los Angeles to New York to London to Paris, the society to which Uncle Phil has access and which Bobby will eventually join, shedding their own ghetto identities for evening wear. Bobby’s New York family is a gallery of Jewish-American archetypes—when Bobby first returns home from Hollywood, we catch up with him sitting down to Shabbat dinner with the whole family in their cramped, earthen-toned apartment, a scene which has the air of a rude awakening. His parents are of working-class stock, which for Allen invariably means a slovenly patriarch in an undershirt (Ken Stott) and a kvetching wife (Jeannie Berlin, excellent, periodically lapsing into Yiddish). Bobby’s sister, Evelyn (Sari Lennick), and her Marxist intellectual husband, Leonard (Stephen Kunken), mainly stick to the outer boroughs, while it’s his older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), whom Bobby sees the most of, and who gives him a leg up back into the high life. It’s Ben, an unregenerate gangster, who is responsible for that body count that I referred to earlier, for the film periodically accompanies him on his rounds, during which he’s seen taking care of whoever happens to be in his way and putting them out of sight in poured concrete tombs.
The shirtsleeves philosopher, Little Caesar, and pencil-necked lover are all familiar figures from the Allen corpus, and the one-liners still abound, although several here are of the nature of something you’d find in a 101 Jewish Jokes paperback sitting on the toilet tank. (“Too bad the Jewish religion doesn’t have an afterlife. They’d get a lot more customers.”) If there’s any defining feature to Allen’s late work beyond his Eurozone-hopping itinerary and slumping slugging percentage with laugh-lines it’s the pellucid loveliness of their cinematography. After pairing with Darius Khondji on his last two films, including the supernally alluring Magic in the Moonlight, Allen is working here with Vittorio Storaro, the legendary repeat collaborator of Bernardo Bertolucci who has spent most of the 21st century working on projects well beneath his talent. As shot by Storaro, lush, verdant Southern California and the sparkling Pacific have never looked quite so Mediterranean, if not Elysian, the figures rimmed in an amber daylight, the coloration of the deep-focus photography given the pop of stained-glass or hand-painted movie posters. When Bobby first expresses his disillusion with Hollywood—which appears quite out of left field—and proposes that Vonnie move to New York with him, you have to think he’s crazy, for what could ever be more beautiful than the pre-smog Los Angeles that the movie gives us, with its clean ocean air and omnipresent sprays of festive flowers? But then Bobby actually gets to New York, and we see the rolled greensward of country houses and the Hudson north of the city with its merry white sailboats and Central Park in the fresh-scrubbed light of dawn, and it really is every bit as fine. Even Ben’s murders are beautiful—one target takes a bullet to the head while he sits in the barber’s chair wrapped in a hot towel, and a crimson blossom begins suddenly to spread on his opposite temple. This isn’t the movie’s lone headshot, by the way—in fact I can’t remember this much on-screen bloodshed in a Woody Allen movie since the dueling scene in Love and Death.
These mob hits are unusual digressions in a movie that’s ostensibly about the “what if?” doubts that linger around a youthful love affair long after it’s been consigned to nostalgic dreams—and I haven’t even mentioned the cutaway to a society woman taking aim and putting down her unfaithful husband on a hunting trip. But then Café Society is an unusually digressive piece of work, and en route to its moony conclusion it casually brushes past a dozen potentially rich thematic side streets. Among these are the connection between a lost first love and the loss of cultural identity, and the burden of guilt on the willfully ignorant but morally culpable, be it the family who accepted Ben’s money and favors while pretending innocence of his business or the former houseguest of Hitler whom Allen’s narrator identifies swanning about the club in one of the reiterated “who’s who” set pieces. There is also a great deal of material touching on the uncertainties of Jewish-American identity in the 1930s, either imposed from without (a crack about the uncircumcised membership at a country club) or within (the scene where Bobby sends away an untested young escort played by Anna Camp after she reveals she has the surname “Garfein.”)
It’s not necessarily a demerit that Allen doesn’t go into any of these topics at greater depth, whatever that means, but his central storyline feels sketched in too. While caricaturing might do for the rest of the Dorfmans, a little more detail work is in order for leading-man Bobby, who’s given nothing beyond the hunch and stammer that act as signposts identifying Allen’s on-screen avatars. Eisenberg might seem born to take up the mantle, but though he still looks sufficiently fresh-faced in his early thirties to play the kid who’s only just trying to put it together, he’s more convincing in acidity than innocence these days—something which couldn’t be said at the time of 2009’s Adventureland, first of his three screen pairings with Stewart. Bobby is a romantic who loses love and, heartbroken, backs his way into a fortune, but the relationship between his heart and his bank account are little delved into, and he remains throughout an oddly ambivalent figure. His early ambition is never clear—something about living in Greenwich Village on love and wine?—and as a result his late disillusion isn’t so moving as one senses it’s meant to be. He’s not alone in looking adrift: Carrell’s character doesn’t have any firmly developed core, and the actor seems to be starting over in every scene he features in. It is a measure of Stewart’s effortless low-simmer sensuality that she can actually sell the idea that she’s burning with desire to fuck this guy—let’s see Meryl Streep pull that off!
I can’t say a word against the work done here by Stewart, or longtime Allen collaborators like Santo Loquasto and casting director Juliet Taylor, or Storaro, who has given us some sumptuous images. Café Society is never ugly, even when touching on the genteel poverty of the lower middle-class—though does all of this generously spackled-on beauty necessarily work to the advantage of a movie which counts the price tag of beauty among its concerns? (The Purple Rose of Cairo makes an instructive comparison.) Echoing the picturesque framing of Bobby and Vonnie’s lovemaking in a beachside cove in a later scene of Bobby and Veronica sipping white wine on a pristine Manhattan patio may work to suggest that the best things in life are free, but Allen loves the pomp of the period too much to make one feel any sense of spiritually fatal compromise in going where the money is. In fact he often seems to lose the thread of what his movie is on about, and next to the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, a Hollywood history lesson rigorous in conception and execution, Café Society is decidedly dithery and discursive. Next to the rest of the tripe that’s out there, though . . . What’s the old saying about the Land of the Blind?