Café Society

October 21, 2016
Jesse Eisenberg and Blake Lively in Café Society (2016)
Jesse Eisenberg and Blake Lively in Café Society (2016)

It’s become apparent that Woody Allen’s films are better when he’s not actually starring in them. This doesn’t mean these movies are quarantined against his invasive presence, merely that we don’t have to endure the same neurotic persona that seemed tremendously funny circa 1977.

If Allen can’t be seen, he will still be heard, either in the form of a narrator that introduces the scenes we are about to watch, or as a kind of demon who takes possession of the lead male character and makes him speak with the director’s voice. In Café Society he explores both options: in a voiceover that turns the film into a Hollywood bedtime story, and in the personality of Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg.

There are times in this movie when Eisenberg sounds so much like Allen you start to wonder if it’s just a really great make-up job. He’s even perfected the hunched, defensive body language.

As well as a suitably nervy, awkward, male lead, you may be surprised to learn the film contains a domineering Jewish mother, an egg-head who likes to philosophise over the dinner table, an up-tempo jazz score, and a young woman who falls for an older man. Although I’m of an age when I should be sympathetic to Allen’s fantasy of raw, sexualised youth being entranced by age and experience, I’m always hanging out for one of his heroines to say: “Yuck! You’re old enough to be my grandfather!”

By Allen’s standards Café Society is one of his more benign efforts. It isn’t anywhere near as irritating as Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, or Irrational Man, although it’s cloying and cutsey in a way that Blue Jasmine (almost) avoided. It’s also his best looking effort in a long time, thanks to some skilful cinematography and set design.

The period is the 1930s. We arrive in Los Angeles with young Bobby Dorfman who has decided he can no longer bear working in his father’s jewellery store in the Bronx. Instead Bobby throws himself on the good offices of his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood. Although it takes a while, Phil gives Bobby a menial job, and assigns his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) the task of showing him around.

Naturally this leads to romantic complications, which I won’t elaborate. Although Bobby is starting to meet some influential people, his infatuation with Hollywood has soon run its course. In the second part of the movie he returns to New York, taking up the job of manager at a nightclub run by his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), who solves every problem by putting another stiff under a concrete pour.

Around the dinner table in the Bronx we also meet Bobby’s mum and dad, whose conversation is the usual comic disquisition on what it means to be Jewish. The egg-head is his brother-in-law, Leonard (Steven Kunken) who looks like Arthur Miller and talks like every other know-all in the Woody Allen universe.

As Bobby becomes progressively more confident and successful he still harbours romantic misgivings about his days in LA – and that’s pretty much it, in regards to plot.

Café Society puts a lot of effort into being charming, and viewers less battle-scarred than me will probably be willing to succumb. One could argue that this coming-of-age tale is a ragged affair, with many scenes played for laughs without any apparent intention of advancing the narrative. A scene with a first-time Jewish hooker named Candy (Anna Camp) doesn’t lead anywhere, unless we see it as a warning to Bobby not to prostitute himself in Hollywood society.

In the early days of the novel this is what all stories were like. The idea of a tightly-scripted film with significant repetitions and metaphors is only a convention, not a golden standard. There is no big idea in Café Society, only a slightly wistful meditation on lost love or paths not taken. Bobby, who once dreamt of a poor but happy Bohemian life in a Greenwich Village apartment, becomes a big shot who mixes with high society, movie stars, politicians and mobsters. He begins as a complete naïf and becomes a man of the world.

It’s not so easy to draw an exact equation between what Bobby did in LA and his success in New York, but presumably we are expected to believe it was his bitter experience of first love that made him throw himself into his new role. Does he stop being a romantic dreamer, or simply discover that he is more practical and materialistic than he ever suspected? It’s not a question that permits a resolution. Life is not subservient to our plans and dreams, it takes us wherever it pleases. Most people dream of success and end up with nothing, but Bobby wildly underestimates his own capacities. His problem is that even at the height of his affluence, he can’t shake off the feeling he has missed the main game. It’s a familiar, melancholy variation on the human condition – a tune that Allen has played again and again and again.

Café Society
Written & directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider
USA, rated M, 96 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15th October, 2016.