A neurotic young man in a big city grapples with life and love: a story told many a time by Woody Allen. His latest film, Café Society, is no different. Avid consumers of Allen’s work will not be surprised, as the prolific filmmaker is known to often return to the same ideas. And, in Café Society he has rehashed quite a few of his favourite.
Bobby Dorfman, (Jesse Eisenberg) bored of New York — as if one could ever be — and sick of working for his father, hightails it out the east and heads towards the lights and glamour of 1930s Hollywood in the hopes of riding the coattails of his successful agent uncle, Phil (Steve Carell). He falls headlong into Hollywood and headlong into love with his uncle’s gorgeous and ‘grounded’ secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Little does he know that — one of Allen’s favourite ideas coming up — his uncle is also vying for her affections. Eventually LA life gets too much for him and he heads back to New York — as if there were any other city our young protagonist would end up in — where he gets a job running a club for his mafia brother. He gets a job, he gets a girl, he gets married and he has a kid; he does all the things he’s supposed. The lessons of lov force young, callow Bobby to grow up and get on with life; not the life that he necessarily wanted but the one he has.
It is a sad but sweet film, full of charm but lacking in substance. It is undeniably Allen’s best film in recent years but in the grand scheme of things it is a beautiful but thin piece of work. Steve Carell as the barrel-chested super-agent is by far the highlight and his confident world-weary performance garners the few laughs the film has to offer. The cinematography also deserves praise as the opulence of the 1930s really envelops the viewer thanks to beautiful shooting by Vittorio Storaro. The golden hue that imbues everything at the beginning is a bit too on the head in conveying the glamour of the ‘golden age’, but otherwise the film is visually stunning.
When it comes to Eisenberg, well they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and you can’t help but wonder if pandering in such a way to Allen’s ego is what landed him the job. In Eisenberg Allen is able to play a role he is much too old to. It is uncanny the way he nervously vomits and paces his lines and tensely and awkwardly gesticulates. It’s as if Allen has in fact inhabited his body. However, this feat of possession doesn’t do much to engender the audience to the protagonist.
Maybe this is not so much Eisenberg’s fault as the film seems to lack a story for him to really get his teeth into. Instead it feels like a series of charming vignettes clumsily strung together by Allen’s own narration. No more so than in the second half where the audience interest wanes as the intriguing love triangle narrative comes to end and the second half drags a story to New York that was lost back in LA.
Things come to a close on a melancholy note and you leave the cinema feeling entertained by a pretty thing that ultimately you won’t remember in a week’s time. It’s a shame, this film of two acts, between two great cities, could have been much more than just charming love story.