DIR/WRI: Woody Allen • PRO: Letty Aronson, Edward Walson • DOP: Vittorio Storaro • ED: Alisa Lepselter • DES: Santo Loquasto • CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
That time of year has come again where Woody Allen dishes out another film about neurotic socialites. His proficiency at adhering to a scheduled annual release since 1982 would be awe-inspiring if his filmography didn’t also continually exemplify how axiomatic it is to favour quality over quantity. If hard pressed to name the last Woody Allen film that not only was great as a film but stood to demonstrate why he deserved such a lauded reputation, the answer would have to be Crimes and Misdemeanours all the way back in 1989. However, does anyone really care that he hasn’t made a brilliant film in nearly 30 years? Now, at 80 years old, Woody Allen’s films don’t matter anymore even to him, only as far as he can continue to make them without interference. Critically speaking, that puts Café Society in a difficult spot. Depending entirely on a person’s particular affection for Woody Allen’s style, Café Society is either a serviceably passable crowd-pleaser or an underwhelming and lazy outing from a once great director.
Café Society, at its very heart, is a love story in the classical Hollywood tradition. Jesse Eisenberg plays the young, naïve, and overwrought Bobby Dorfman who has just stepped into tinseltown in hopes of becoming a big success. His infatuation with Hollywood glamour quickly dissipates but Bobby becomes smitten by a young woman named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who seems to be the only unpretentious one left in L.A. A romance quickly blossoms between the two, but Vonnie secretly has been having an affair with Bobby’s uncle (Steve Carell) for whom they both work. An increasing confliction affects Vonnie as she continues to see both men, unsure of whether to marry for love or financial certitude. Suddenly, when Bobby finds out about his uncle and Vonnie, a decision must be made about who she wants to spend the rest of her life with.
Ever since the 2012 documentary on his life, it’s become somewhat common knowledge that Woody Allen’s stories derive from scribbled ideas on yellow pages which he stuffs in his bedside locker. It seems as though Café Society had just one idea on its page, in a two-minute scene which concludes the film and which serves as the emotional centre of the entire story. It’s undoubtedly a satisfying payoff, one of the most inspired moments of the film, but it makes the preceding hour and a half feel unpolished and extremely lacking.
The themes, the jokes, even the common highbrow references are unignorably perfunctory this time around. Café Society tries to embrace the romantic and fantastical quality of Hollywood films from long ago, but it’s inconsistent. Sometimes the surrounding nature of the young couple in love will create a boarder that captures the lovers as if they were in a gorgeous frame in a picture gallery. Sometimes cinematography and blocking is so bland that it looks as though Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are simply reciting their lines before the actual take. Music is especially grating because of how unusually uninspired it is for a Woody Allen film. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Rodgers and Hart’s famous “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is used as a recurring motif that reflects the inner turmoil facing characters who become enamoured by one another while feeling an overwhelming responsibility to commit to the partner they married or chose. In Café Society, Rodgers and Hart’s famous “Manhattan” is used as a recurring motif because, well, the story takes place in Manhattan eventually. Such decisions made in music and other parts of the film are not necessarily bad choices, just especially lazy and uninteresting.
Acting feels particularly stilted and awkward this time around. Part of the reason for this, possibly, is due to the new visual formatting in which the film is shot. Café Society marks Woody Allen’s first foray into digital filmmaking and there’s a clear unease with the transition. Allen’s affection for classical Hollywood alongside the story’s demand for a more archaic and exaggerated style in performance creates a jarring disconnect with the digital quality of the frame. Scenes can often feel artificial when it tries to be realistic. There are two standout performances, however, that transcend this hurdle. Firstly, Corey Stoll as Bobby’s Mafioso brother, showcasing an actor who can often play tough men with brilliantly comic exaggeration when given the right role as Corey has been given here.
The true star, however, is Kristen Stewart. Stewart has often been maligned for her acting style and if anything can be unequivocally suggested about her post-Twilight career is that she’s made every effort to divest her former reputation. Stewart charms her way through every scene of Café Society. She performs effortlessly with a zestful energy that has been missing from many actresses preceding her who have stepped into the women that Woody Allen writes. Vonnie, as a character, doesn’t quite suit Kristen Stewart’s performance style but she conveys such emotion through Vonnie that the dissonance is eventually forgotten.
Café Society is not a terrible film by any means and surpasses the recent waning quality of Woody Allen’s late career. It still wouldn’t be considered good though. It’s an unimpressively mediocre romantic comedy that has enough little things to save it from being boring, but the clear lack of effort can be frustrating for those who expect more from a film by Woody Allen.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Café Society is released 2nd September 2016