Cafe Society, which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and opened the festival, is the 47th feature film by Woody Allen. With a budget of $30 million, it is also his most expensive film to date. These days you typically know what you’re going to get from a Woody Allen film, and his distinctive opening credits are immediately a dead giveaway. But, he still seems to possess the capacity to surprise, and the visually splendid Cafe Society is one such example.
With Jesse Eisenberg again standing in as the Woody Allen surrogate (he’s actually done this before in the awful To Rome With Love), Woody turns his lens on 1930’s Hollywood, as a young New Yorker (Eisenberg), trying to make a career out West, finds his dreams dashed when he falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the assistant of his talent agent uncle, Phil (Steve Carrell).
Quietly, and completely unexpectedly, Cafe Society became one of my favourite photographed films of 2016. This is aesthetically top-tier Woody (he has certainly utilised that budget), whose formidable career – maintaining an incredible ‘a-film-a-year’ pace – has been inconsistent of late. He has now made so many films that to say “this is his best film since…” actually means something. Well, this is easily his best film since his Academy Award-winning Blue Jasmine. He is trucking through some familiar ideas, sure – and if the guy is starting to run out of them, who could blame him – but his grasp over his craft hasn’t seemed this comfortable in a while. The consistently amusing screenplay, likeable characters, charming cast – especially Stewart, who has been anything but stellar in 2016 – and the skills of his legendary DP ensure it is an all-round pleasing time.
While Bobby is in LA – courting Vonnie, and attending his uncle’s elaborate parties, there are flash Bronx-set interludes detailing bits and pieces of the lives of Bobby’s family – notably the gangster activities of his elder brother Ben (Corey Stoll), and the issues experienced by his elder sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her husband Leonard (a terrific Stephen Kunken) with an unreasonable neighbour. These jumps are initially somewhat jarring, before you learn that Bobby will return to the Bronx and his family will once again play essential roles in his life. There is a real homely atmosphere about these scenes, and they are a lot of fun.
Bobby absorbs both Phil and Vonnie’s anxieties about their respective situations – for Vonnie, she’s struggling to cope with being dumped by her already-married boyfriend, and for Phil, his unwillingness to leave his wife for his mistress, and that his inability to commit has ultimately ruined everything. Both Vonnie and Phil learn that a love triangle exists, but Bobby remains naively oblivious for a while, resulting in some simultaneous funny and melancholic moments.
Woody, making his first move to digital filming, certainly owes a lot to Vittorio Storaro, one of cinema’s most influential cinematographers having worked with filmmakers such as Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist) and Frances Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now). Storaro’s Los Angeles is genuinely glitzy; the sun-drenched locations glow, the blues and greens softly, but vividly, accentuated. While the images are considerably gorgeous – the design of the various locations, including Phil’s office and home, and a bar that Bobby and Vonnie visit on one of their first outings together, lend detail and texture to the thoughtful mise-en-scene. But, the camera operations are also striking. Lengthy, unbroken takes (including a terrific introduction to Blake Lively’s character), static symmetry (Eisenberg and Carrell positioned as unknown opponents, vertically aligned with the patio) and sweeping tracking shots through the hive of activity in Bobby’s nightclub.
The themes are familiar, but with this pleasantly amiable, and frequently amusing comedy Woody eschews any ideas about him having lost his touch. Woody’s characters can often be irritable, their ideologies frustrating, their plights unsympathetic – and many of the films in which he doesn’t star, feature actors working as his surrogate. This has become tiresome over time, even when those performers are Larry David, Owen Wilson and Joaquin Phoenix. But there’s something about his characters in Cafe Society that makes them both magnetic to watch, and easy to fall for and care about.
Bobby’s awkward slip-ups don’t erase his earnest charms, while Vonnie’s split affections have genuine emotional weight, her shyness adding mystery but never clouding her strength; while her big decision is one that we understand and appreciate to be tremendously devastating for her. Phil’s self-congratulatory swagger is quickly suspended when he reveals his vulnerability; his openness about his desire to leave his wife reveals great distress about the repercussions.
Possessing an irresistible heart this romantic hybrid of high-brow Hollywood and the swinging underground NYC nightclub scene is a story of two young people, LA outsiders, whose profound connection remained even as their lives took separate courses and they adapted into different people.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey
Runtime: 96 minutes
Release date: Australia: October 20, 2016