Set in the 1930s, Café Society is director Woody Allen’s latest love letter to Old Hollywood
The film’s narrative revolves around Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who leaves the constricts of his blue-collar parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) and life in the Bronx for Los Angeles, in the hope that he will break into showbiz by way of his narcissistic uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a high-powered talent agent. Bobby rapidly falls for Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) but fails to capture her full attentions as she’s busy having an affair with a much older man who is debating leaving his wife.
A love triangle ensues, but after being spurned by Vonnie, a heartbroken Bobby heads back to New York to work in a nightclub owned by his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), which soon becomes a famous hangout for the rich and powerful of the so-called café society. Bobby later enters into a relationship with glamorous divorcee Veronica Hayes (Blake Lively), though he still pines for what could have been with Vonnie.
While Café Society is a love story of sorts, Bobby isn’t a conventional romantic lead and at one point Vonnie quite rightly points out that he has a “deer-in-the-headlights quality”. The character is also invariably Allen’s alter ego, and Eisenberg evokes the comedian’s familiar style through his whining drawl and his deadpan delivery.
In fact, it’s not jarring in the slightest when Allen’s voiceover narration switches to Bobby speaking throughout the course of the film. Parallels are also evident through moments which echo incidents in Allen’s own life, including a joke about Vonnie and how she fits into Bobby’s family tree – which the viewer can’t help be view as a reference to Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, who he married in 1997 after splitting from her mother, actress Mia Farrow.
While Eisenberg gives an intriguing performance, not the same can be said of Stewart. She’s undoubtedly an alluring screen presence and pulls off the floral dresses of the period with aplomb, but she struggles to capture the charm of the era, and in some instances is reduced to simple gesturing.
Though Allen uses Café Society, his 47th feature film, as a commentary on the way people choose partners and how relationships inform lives, such concepts are consistently outshone by the filmic setting. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro makes the sun shine incessantly in L.A., with twilight poolside parties particularly beautifully shot, through the layering of shades of purple and amber.
At one point the film, Bobby tells his brother that he finds himself “kind of half-bored, half-fascinated” by his surroundings – an uttering one can’t help but think perfectly surmises what it’s like to watch Cafe Society.
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