Woody Allen’s yearly addiction to making films continues. As anyone who follows Allen’s work knows, its quality has been steadily dropping as the years pass. Since the millennium there have been only a few gems hidden amongst a sea of mediocre, dull or downright bad movies. How does Café Society stack up against expectations, then? The answer: acceptably. It is clearly a very troubled picture with many flaws, and yet one couldn’t help leaving the cinema with a smile.
The film focusses upon the life of a promising young man, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), as he leaves home for Hollywood, finds and loses love and then runs a bar in New York. “Focusses”, however, is perhaps a rather generous term; Allen’s script continually jumps to other characters and locations (mainly members of Bobby’s family) for comedic asides. While these interludes are usually successful with their humorous intent, they make the film feel directionless and drag the pacing, at least of the first half, to a standstill whenever they occur. Once Bobby moves to New York they become more integrated, but the overall impression is of a filmmaker who can’t decide if he’s making a serious personal drama or a broad comedy. Tonal shifts are fine, but need to be done well and for a good reason, which isn’t the case for large parts of this film.
The second major problem is Allen’s attempt at a critique of Hollywood society. Similarly, this is only a problem in the film’s first half, but it starts the film off with a bitter taste. His intention is to have all the characters speak in empty platitudes and name drops to show the hollowness of the world they operate within. This works by the end, at which point it is contrasted with Bobby and his family’s more grounded perspective, but for the first 45 minutes the audience is attacked with dull empty characters and reference after reference. Rather than achieving a deeper resonance, they exist to show off how much Allen knows about the period. For a critique of meaningless show-boating, the film often falls into the trap of doing exactly the same thing itself.
As I’ve stated, however, I enjoyed the film overall, and it does have many saving graces. For one, the cast playing Bobby’s family are excellent at comedy. It’s nothing ground breaking, the gangster jokes seeming ripped from an early draft of Bullets over Broadway, but is played so well that the material is lifted into being genuinely funny. The visual style, something that can rarely be mentioned in Allen’s films, normally known for being aesthetically safe and unnoticeable, actually tries to convey feelings. Sometimes this is done rather sloppily, but the fact that Allen even tries gives Café Society an edge over its two predecessors which felt very lazy and by the numbers.
The most successful aspect of the film is the relationship between Bobby and love interest Vonnie. Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who plays the latter, produce a very natural chemistry from their first appearance together. Their characters’ relationship always feels quite believable through a combination of their acting skill and the scripts lack of deep romance. Despite existing within Hollywood, the dream factory itself, at no point is Bobby and Vonnie’s connection stressed as something fated, or even at some points desirable. Both are lonely people drawn together only by their own feelings and nothing more.
This is not the most original or successful take on such topics (even by Allen himself), and it is hard to claim, as some have, that it is a return to form for the filmmaker. However, for all of its faults, watching Café Society is a surprisingly pleasant experience that stands out among the tedium of Allen’s recent work.