Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Judy Davis, Paul Schneider and Anna Camp.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen
Opening Night Film, 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salle Debussy Theatre.
Given the richness of Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking cinematography and the rose-coloured hint of melancholy it invokes, the urge is to posit Café Society in with Woody Allen’s ‘Americana’ period of the 1980s. Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days reminisced on bygone days, his latest is an often giddy, always gorgeous love-letter to both the Los Angeles of Hollywood’s golden era and New York’s swinging jazz club scene of the 1930s.
Yet for all the declarations of passion and sun-bathed joie de vivre of lovers encircling each other, Allen’s characters are an immoral, shallow, even shady bunch. They are descendants of comic creations that the auteur has crafted superbly in past works, that much is true, just not the films that Cafe Society aesthetically recalls. These self-absorbed philanderers and shallow socialites are the miscreants of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point.
To his own narration, Allen opens his film poolside in LA, as a Hollywood party is in full swing. Uber-agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) is holding court, name-dropping with sleazy Hollywood abandon (“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers”), when he hears from his East Coast sister, Rose (Jeanne Berlin, stealing most scenes she is in); his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading his way and needs work. The young man’s arrival leads to some neat fish-out-of-water bits that don’t particularly further the plot (notably an extended gag about Bobby’s first visit from a professional girl), before he is given a menial job at the agency and assigned to Phil’s PA Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) on weekends to be shown around town.
Eisenberg, riffing on Allen as has become de rigueur for the director’s leading men, and Stewart, whose lightness of touch proves a revelation and classically photogenic charms are adored by Storaro’s lens, have developed a sweet rapport after past efforts together (Adventureland, 2009; American Ultra, 2015). Their courtship scenes are the best moments in Café Society, especially a sequence that has them tour Beverly Hills, taking in the star’s palatial digs while wonderfully revealing character and chemistry. Another glorious set-up, during which the electricity in Bobby’s apartment blacks out and he tends to Vonnie’s broken heart by the glow of candlelight and streetlamp, all but guarantees DOP Storaro mention come Oscar time.
Soon, the machinations of plot take over and we learn that the love that keeps Vonnie from Bobby is very close to home. The west coast scenes skip along at a lively pace, endearing each character and milking the most from a storyline that is not very ambitious (and, to Allen’s fans, a tad familiar) but which engages thanks to Allen’s ensemble and masterful sense of timing.
The story shifts to New York and characters that were peripheral comedy relief become the centre of an ever-expanding narrative. Bobby returns home and begins to walk in the shadow of thuggish big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), robbing the film of Carell’s and Stewart’s presence and the ‘zing’ they share with Eisenberg. As Bobby’s east coast love interest Veronica, Blake Lively is every bit as captivating as Stewart but is afforded far less character development; an underworld subplot that involves murder and corruption feels unconvincing and perfunctory (and often overtly bloody). The Woody Allen who once perfectly captured the alienation of a New Yorker in Los Angeles is nowhere to be found here; Allen’s LA story is sublime, while his NYC-set narrative stutters.
Allen last filled the Cannes opening slot with arguably his best film in recent memory, Midnight in Paris. If Café Society does not match the sheer delight of that period piece gem, nor attains the caustic and captivating immorality of, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours, it fits with a body of work from a director still determined to explore the shading between the themes of love and deceit, truth and pretension, desire and commitment. Though not the sum of its many wonderful parts, Café Society still represents a captivating melding of the light-and-dark complexity of Allen’s best work.