Woody Allen is one of the most celebrated directors on the 20th century. With hits like Annie Hall and Manhattan, he’s loved for his quirky, almost self-loathing humour and existential crises. His last film, Irrational Man, released in 2015, was met with mixed response, so let’s see if his new film can do any better.
Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carrell, Kristen Stewart and Blake Lively and is written and directed by Woody Allen. The film follows Bobby Dorman (Eisenberg) who engages in the high society of both Hollywood and New York during the 1930s.
As the film is set during the early 1930s, the golden age of Hollywood, Café Society is in love with its time period, similar to The Coen Brother’s Hail, Caesar! earlier this year. Many references are made to Hollywood actors, actresses and directors, so if you’re not clued up on your Busby Berkeley’s and Greta Garbo’s you might not get as much enjoyment as I did from it. It’s not like Allen’s Midnight In Paris, with actors taking the place of the Era’s stars, most of them are just name-dropped, a shallow attempt for the characters to boast how many famous people they are friends with.
The 30s setting though gives us two great things, the music and the costumes. Our main character Bobby is a huge fan of jazz, constantly playing records while he potters around his house. Through the story he becomes owner of a club, with smooth jazz being played every night. The many parties he goes to show off the latter, with classic suits and elegant dresses. Everyone is wearing double-breasted jackets with wide lapels, bow ties, suspenders, it at least deserves a nomination for the both at when Oscar season rolls around.
The film is shot mainly in long takes. It isn’t the pretentious long takes of The Revenant, it’s more controlled, used when it fits the mood. In that fact, it feels more like a play rather than a film, with focus squarely on the actors, rather than lavish sets. The sets are subdued, mainly people’s back gardens and small parties, not the sprawling excess of films of the era.
After his mincing, over-the-top portrayal of Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman, Jesse Eisenberg seems to be redeeming himself by turning around from comic books to indie darlings. He is good as Bobby, moving from adorably geeky at the start to a high-flying socialite by the end. Kristen Stewart is perfect as Vonnie, the 30s version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl that Bobby is infatuated with. Sure, it was easy to ridicule her during her Twilight days with her wooden acting, but she’s really grown as an actress since then. The show is stolen though by Corey Stoll in a small role as Bobby’s big brother Ben. A kingpin in the NYC underworld, his technique of getting rid of competition by giving them “cranial ventilation” (in his words) before burying them in concrete drew many laughs from the audience and fits into Allen’s recurring theme about the ethics of murder. Many other Allen motifs turn up, the eternally anxious main character, love and relationships (usually forbidden), classic cinema and of course, lots of Jewish-based humour.
The points that I didn’t really like were mainly story-based. The story is pretty predictable, nothing really new or different on-screen. The mood shifts wildly from light comedy to melancholy and back again, leaving me wondering whether I was meant to be laughing or feeling sympathetic for the characters. And even being a 96 minute film, it feels rather slow. The film dallies about, with events happening but no real story to speak of. It doesn’t build too much, ending rather abruptly.
In the end, Café Society will suit those who enjoy the vibe of the 30s with small dashes of comedy and melancholy. It will be more one for the indie crowd, but you should have a good time with it.
Score: 7/10 Brief fun and glamour in Classic Hollywood.