A great Woody Allen film is a bit of a treat these days. It feels like a special occasion, like opening a Christmas present from an aunt and discovering that for once she actually got you something you want. Allen’s track record has been spotty of late, though with undeniable treasures — though even those have recently been overshadowed by debate over the director’s family life and allegations of abuse. Whatever you think of Allen and his alleged transgressions, it is at least likely you’ll find something to like in his latest, Café Society — unless you really are steadfast in your conviction that we’re just not allowed to like his films in the wake of the allegations.
This time around, Jesse Eisenberg is the requisite Allen stand-in, and a fine job he does of it too, in a take that plays up his nervy social awkwardness and leaves the quips mostly to the rest of the cast. He’s a young New York Jew who’s moved across the country hoping for a job from his big-shot agent uncle (Steve Carell) in golden era Hollywood. There he meets, and falls for, his uncle’s secretary (Kristen Stewart), before events send him back to New York and into the arms of his criminal brother (Corey Stoll) and, inevitably, another woman (Blake Lively).
There are a few more twists and turns in there, and the plot is one of Allen’s typically meandering affairs, taking in characters in both cities, spanning multiple years, and frequently going off on asides about contemporary society, be it the glamorous studio execs of L.A. or the snobbish elites of New York. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro makes the most of the glitz and glamour, but it’s clear his heart is in the East Coast, where his lensing brings out the sort of stunning New York shots that only Allen’s films seem to provide. Across it all there’s a typically jazzy soundtrack, and the director’s choices are hard to fault.
There’s a careful balance of Allen’s usual taste for dark and intellectual comedy with the more dramatic bent of the screenplay. It’s undoubtedly funny (not least an early, passive aggressive back-and-forth between Eisenberg’s Bobby and a first-time prostitute) but there’s a poignant through-line, a meditation on lost loves and missed opportunities, compromise and the feeling of facing up to a life that will never be all it could be.
Allen balances a number of different threads, though doesn’t quite tie them all together, and a few of the sequences featuring Bobby’s extended family feel particularly out-of-place, lacking the narrative and thematic connective tissue to link them more closely to the film’s main thrust.
Fortunately for Allen, any faults are mostly smoothed out by the able cast. Eisenberg may be the obvious avatar for the director, but Kristen Stewart brings much of the same discomfort to her part, working her trademark lip-bite and downward gaze into a sense of genuine anxiety. Most of all, Steve Carell proves an inspired choice, all bravado and bluster to cover up all-too-apparent insecurities.
Café Society is Allen on fine form: witty, melancholic, uproarious, depressive, and viciously clever right to the bittersweet end.
Words by Dominic Preston