20 September 2016

Woody Allen’s ‘Café Society’

September in the UK often marks the general release of the Woody Allen’s most recent film, this year’s being Café Society, written, directed and narrated by Allen and also his first digital shooting. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a young New Yorker, Bobby Dorfman from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg), who sets off to Hollywood hoping for a job with his maternal uncle, Phil Stern. Phil is an agent with an impressive office and a secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to match his success. Bobby turns out to be a dependable gofer and also starts to secure Vonnie’s affections, despite her already having a boyfriend in town. But before too long, Bobby discovers the identity of Vonnie’s on-off lover and abruptly returns to New York. Thanks to his gangster brother Ben, Bobby becomes a manager of a high society night club. He meets and marries one of the clients, another Veronica. One night, who should come into the club but Vonnie, now married to her lover. Bobby and Vonnie meet later and talk things over against the Manhattan backdrops Allen has made his own. Both being too sensible to jeopardise what they have, nothing worse befalls them than some bittersweet regrets for an unrequited love, whereas Ben gets his just deserts.

I thought Eisenberg was convincing as the ingénu in Tinsel Town, but lacked the presence needed to manage a high-class New York night spot. Stewart (last seen here as the PA in Clouds of Sils Maria) took every advantage offered by the part of Vonnie and carried the film. There were some vintage lines from Allen. The Dorfman family are probably stronger on one-liners than theology, for example when Bobby’s mother points out that “Too bad Jews don’t have an afterlife. They’d get a lot of business.” Another: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the examined one is no bargain.” The West Coast provided some splendid 1930s exterior locations, but some of the shots there and in New York were on the point of being overstocked and over-frocked with the period.

As for the ending, well there’s been a three hour time difference between the US East and West Coasts since the 1880s, even on New Year’s Eve. But then Allen’s Depression America, affluent and colourful, is not too constrained by the realities of the times, probably better depicted recently in Genius. Café Society is reportedly Allen’s 48th film. By comparison with his recent work, it’s a lot better than Magic in the Moonlight, and better than Irrational Man, but not as good as Blue Jasmine.

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