A large cast, larger than life setting, and a big-talent writer/director should spell success, however Woody Allen’s latest had one of the messiest trailers that I’ve seen in a long time. That could explain why the film is something of a box office flop. Additionally, it had no coherent plot that I could deduce from the trailer whatsoever, and all that I knew for certain was Woody Allen’s presence. After seeing the movie however, I can happily say those trailers aren’t reflective of the actual quality of the film.
‘Café Society’ stars a large ensemble cast, featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, and the voice of Woody Allen himself. The plot is focused around the faux glamourous society during the 1930s, in two places, Hollywood and New York City. Though it’s not mentioned, it is set during the Great Depression, one of the worst economic times in American history. The movie primarily centers on Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Bobby, a Bronx native that moves to LA in the hopes of making it big in the land of talent agents, like his uncle Phil, played by Steve Carell. Bobby meets his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, played by Kristen Stewart. As is the nature of all Woody Allen movies, we have a love story; not just between characters, but between the director and the setting as well.
The clearest thing that spoke to me with Allen’s direction, is the tone of LA, NYC and other places, and how they change our characters. Allen’s clear love for New York City shines throughout the second half of this movie in particular. The feeling for Los Angeles comes across as a type of love/hate relationship, where the city itself is incredibly superficial, but the buzz about it is unique and impossible to replicate. The scenes in LA are bathed in yellow, from the reflection of the sunlight to the paint on the walls, while New York has a bluer color palette. The set design has multiple questionable anachronisms, or things that just feel like they don’t fit in the time-frame in general. The score and music definitely fits the movie, with that nightclub jazz vibe being utilized to its full potential.
The performances are good overall. Allen’s direction of actors is one of his best attributes; all of the characters and performances remain consistent and feel like they all come from the same movie. The standouts to me were Corey Stoll’s Ben, who is Bobby’s older brother and a gangster of sorts, and Bobby’s stereotypical Jewish mother, played by Jeannie Berlin. Eisenberg does his thing, where he talks fast and is awkwardly philosophical, and Stewart acts as a nice counter to that, slowing him down and making him more like a person than a middle-school kid trying to ask a girl out. Steve Carell is average; he doesn’t noticeably change moods without his lines, but his line delivery is always great. Stoll and Berlin are the standouts; they make every scene they are in the best in the film. They have the best comedic energy, Stoll has the best character arc, and they command the screen. Blake Lively feels wasted in the 10 minutes she’s in the movie, but she is an impossibly attractive human being so I guess I can’t criticize her for basically being in the movie for that purpose.
My biggest problem with the movie is the story. The trailer definitely had some messy delivery in trying to convey the film’s message, and whilst the actual film isn’t bad, it definitely isn’t perfect. The film has two entirely separate chapters, only connected by having the same characters. The main love story between Eisenberg and Stewart felt mostly forced, as a way to easily relate the characters and so that Woody Allen can have an easier time telling the story. The film just kind of ends, and a lot of the transitions leading to the non-ending end are strangely done. The main story arc involving Stewart’s character is disappointing, and especially at the peak of her storyline, there’s a poorly explained twist that just didn’t sit right with me. It could just be me being disappointed by having my expectations subverted in a rather abrupt manner, but whatever. It also doesn’t really point out its reason to exist. Most films eventually get their point across, when they say or show the grand message they want the audience to take away. This film has nothing related to that; it exists as filler entertainment.
In summation, Woody Allen has made another Woody Allen film. It’s got the same sexual and urban vibe that something like ‘Midnight in Paris’ did so well, while having the in-the-moment feeling that some of the earlier Richard Linklater films had (‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘Before Sunset’). It doesn’t bring anything new from the genre or retread anything classic about what makes Woody Allen films so unique. His directorial style and sense of humor are well used here, and there’s no one else that could’ve made a film like this any better. If you like Woody Allen, you should be able to enjoy this one. If you don’t like dialogue driven dramas, then maybe skip this one. It’s a pleasant afternoon movie that would be a good rental on a rainy day.