Charlie Lewis, avid consumer of anything Woody Allen, brings us his take on Allen’s latest high-society drama, Cafe Society.
If we start at his dubbed comedy of a Japanese spy thriller, What’s Up Tiger Lily? Woody Allen has been churning out a film roughly a year for 50 of his 80 years on this planet. His generous output means his great films outnumber many filmmakers’ entire output. Probably his bad films, too, while we’re on the subject. It is groaning under that history that his every film makes its way to our cinemas, and it’s to Allen’s credit that you’d never know it. He’s followed his muse from wacky comedies to in-depth relationship studies, magical realism, expressionism, pitch black existentialism, even musicals.
Never has he given the impression that he was trying to match a previous effort. In the latest offering, he indulges in his love of golden era Hollywood – glamourous parties, romantic farce, brutal gangsters and cigar chomping movie executives are all jammed into his sprawling take on an imagined 1930s America, shot through with Allen’s trademarks; romantic melancholy, nostalgia and a fascination with morality and mortality. (Addition to the Allen pantheon of doomy jokes: ‘Live each day like it’s your last, one day you’ll be right.’)
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a nervy, nebbish, Jewish romantic (does that ring any bells?) arrives in 1930s LA to escape his family and seek…not exactly his fortune, but something. He gets a job running errands for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a powerful movie agent, and through this meets Phil’s Secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart).
She’s commanding and grounded and slightly removed, and Bobby tumbles for her like a wheel of cheese down a hill, despite the knowledge she is seeing someone else. This being a Woody Allen film, complications and confusion, duplicity and misunderstandings soon stack upon one another until the whole unwieldy structure starts to shudder.
The camera luxuriates through the muted pastels of its interiors and the glowing sun of its exteriors – this may the most visually beautiful film Allen has ever made. The supporting cast is, as ever, rock solid – Carrell and Blake Lively are particularly striking, bringing depth and warmth to characters that could have be incidental plot points.
Actually, it’s Eisenberg who’s slightly the problem. There seemingly could be no mainstream actor better suited to the Allen style protagonist, and yet – I can almost hear you smirk, dear reader – he lacks Woody Allen’s range. Allen’s protagonists, for all their nerviness, are able to display confidence and relaxation. As the film progresses, Dorfman is supposed to become more sophisticated, confident, hardened, but he never loses the ‘deer in the headlights’ quality that Veronica remarks on when they first go out. Late in the film, a tuxedoed Eisenberg sits next to a glamourous blond in an all-night jazz club, a cigarette between his fingers, but the hunched shoulders and the tension around the eyes remain. And you feel as though it’s Eisenberg, not Dorfman, who’s tense.
Yet this isn’t enough to sink Café Society. After nearly 50 films, Allen is perfectly at home in his craft, and there is an undeniable enjoyment in just watching him enjoy himself.