Woody, Reheated

Café Society
(USA, 96 min.)
Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Ken Stott
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) in Café Society.
Photo by Sabrina Lantos, courtesy of Gravier Productions..
Woody Allen reheats some leftovers in the palatable but only mildly satisfying Café Society. The film, Woody’s 47th as a director (depending on whether one counts the shorts and anthology work), serves up a classy buffet of all his usual savoury fixings. There’s a steam tray of neuroses, a gravy boat of good looking girls, a side order of Jew jokes, and a worrisome young man having soup for one. Woody dresses it all in the swanky nostalgic fixings that typify about half of his work. There’s nothing like Woody serving up Paris when it sizzles, but California isn’t famous for its cooking and the Hollywood-set Café Society is like a day-old clambake in the Allen oeuvre. It won’t kill you, but it tasted far better the day before.

Café Society brings Allen back to California for a rare Hollywood-set film, and despite being the best director in American cinema, Woody’s always been an outsider to Tinseltown and his awkwardness with the City of Angles shows. The film struggles to find its beat as aspiring Hollywood upstart Bobby Dorfmann (Jesse Eisenberg), whose goals for Hollywood are never entirely clear, makes the move from New York and lands a gig with his hotshot agent of an uncle, Phil (Steve Carell). A few lurching scenes later and Bobby finds himself being escorted around town by Phil’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart), Vonnie for short, with whom Bobby is instantly smitten.

Bobby isn’t one of those guys who endears himself to women very well—or anyone for that matter—as his first encounter with a Hollywood escort (Anna Camp) is an awkward rejection of the poor girl for moral reasons. Something about making it with a fellow Jew and paying for it just doesn’t sit right with Bobby, and the joke’s bound to make audiences a little queasy too. Despite getting nary a sign from Vonnie as she talks endlessly about her current beau and alters plans to reconfigure Bobby’s advances on platonic terms, he gets the idea they’re to be married and starting a new life up in New York.

Spoiler alert aside, that doesn’t work out, but Café Society finds its own new life of sorts when the Woodman brings the film to New York and regains his footing on familiar ground. There’s something about Allen’s humour that just plays better with older cities. Even vintage takes on Hollywood are like an ill-fitting tux as Allen crafts superficial jokes about a club to which he never desired a membership. Once in New York, Bobby gives up his showbiz aspirations and manages a gin joint for his gangster brother (Corey Stoll), which lets him live his dreams of café society—that Gatsby-esque world of liquor, jazz, black suits, and glamorous women. It’s here that the jokes ring of Allen’s passions and experiences and Bobby’s zingers have a decent din, rather than the clunky thud of Hollywood concrete.

It helps, too, that Café Society opens up with the energy of a city like New York as Allen transplants the setting. The cast grows with in a mix of welcome faces like Jeannie Berlin, who’s a hoot as Bobby’s prototypically Jewish mother; Blake Lively, dripping with class and elegance in an underwritten part as Bobby’s new wife, Veronica (coincidence?); and a bit more of Parker Posey as a socialite who straddles both of the big cities in Café Society and keeps some continuity between the two.  

Even at its funniest, though, Café Society has echoes of Annie Hall and a lingering aftertaste of Bullets Over Broadway as it waxes nostalgia for a bygone era with a tale of broken dreams and love that never was. It’s almost always amusing, even if derivatively so, and every frame looks gorgeous thanks to the glimmeringly golden cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, making a respectable replacement for recent Allen regular Darius Khondji, who gave Allen some of the best frames of his filmography. The costumes by Suzy Benzinger (Blue Jasmine) are glamorous threads that will make any viewer nostalgic for an era that oozes so much class and sex appeal. Café Society doesn’t have the depth of Allen’s looks to the past in some of his recent work, but he’s certainly mastered the feat of creating previous eras after so many jaunts with the time machine.

Any trip back in time, however, loses its charisma when the director lets an actor as smug as Jesse Eisenberg be the guide. The actor’s arrogance and self-consciousness overwhelms his work once again. The actor just isn’t funny and the part reeks of his trademark condescension. Eisenberg tries too hard to channel Allen as Bobby chases women and dreams of upward mobility, but he’s the weakest fit for the part of the Allen surrogate after Owen Wilson, Joaquin Phoenix, and even Larry David played it better. The gap feels even wider when Allen himself narrates Café Society and his voice suits it much nicer.

Stewart, however, is a great find to restore the reticent longing of the Mia Farrow days to the Allen oeuvre. Her natural screen presence gives Vonnie a down-to-earth aura that steals the film from a cast of mostly phony-baloney characters. Storaro’s eye grabs her especially well, particularly in some final compositions that inspire one to forget Bobby’s transgressions and leave the theatre hoping there’s a happily ever after for the greater star of the film.

Virtually every ingredient in Café Society is something that Allen’s whipped up before with greater flair, gaiety, and insight. If the peak of the director’s latter-act career is relishing late night libations in Midnightin Paris, then Café Society is Allen licking his fingers at the 4:00 PM seniors’ chicken special. It’s satisfying enough, but Woody tending bar at cocktail hour can’t return soon enough.

Café Society is now playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne and Toronto at the Varsity.