CAFÉ SOCIETY Review

Café Society is a movie I wanted to like more and more as the film played on, but as it did so I actually liked it less and less. Beginning with the standard narration from writer/director Woody Allen that drops us into this tale of a young man looking for a place where the grass might be greener things are promising enough. We are introduced to a cadre of family members around our protagonist, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who will inevitably inform where this current inclination to leave his father's failing jewelry business and move across the country to Los Angeles will actually take him. It is 1930's Los Angeles no less and so Bobby is struck by the great seduction of movie stars, movie star parties, and the most beautiful of people to allure him to the city. It is a place considered mythic to the otherwise unrefined Bobby who has been stuck in Manhattan his entire life. The promise of new beginnings, though somewhat stalled by the disregard of his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), and the downright gorgeous cinematography of Vittorio Storaro that bathes all of golden age Hollywood in gold lends Café Society this vibrant and crisp feeling that resonates strongly with the modern audience hoping to catch a glimpse of the glitz and glamour of 1930's Hollywood that is well-documented, but too rarely brought to life. This fascination can only last so long though, when it becomes clear Allen's latest isn't necessarily about the introspection of this period in history or even a story that compliments the time period in lending insight to the names and faces we all know, but would like to know better. Instead, Café Society becomes a story solely about the romantic plight of Bobby, an Allen surrogate that Eisenberg again plays tremendously without the burden of having the actual Allen co-star alongside him as he did in 2012's To Rome With Love, but as with that film Café Society ends up offering little more than Allen's insecure yet intellectual quips on love, life, and religion among other things. Unfortunately, at this point such musings without an exceptional story on which to convey them simply feel like little more than standard meditations. It is unfortunate there isn't more imagination and wonder behind this latest excursion of Allen's for Café Society's potential initially feels as fresh and crisp as Bobby's outlook upon arriving in Los Angeles.

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) find themselves in a genuine, but unexpected relationship.
And so, it is 1930's Hollywood and Phil Stern (Carell) is one of the most successful agents in the business. In being as much Phil really doesn't have time for his sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) or her son, Bobby, who is moving to Los Angeles with hopes that Phil might find a job for him. Through these introductions we also come to learn Bobby has two other siblings; Evelyn (Sari Lennick), who is married to an intellectual named Leonard (Stephen Kunken) with whom she has a daughter, and gangster Ben (Corey Stoll). After multiple attempts Bobby is finally afforded the chance to sit down with Phil to discuss a possible job to which Phil more or less enlists Bobby's services to run his errands. Given Bobby is new in town and Phil is a self-proclaimed man of substance and not one easily seduced by cheap glamour as many of his contemporaries are, he asks his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to take Bobby around town, show him the area, and introduce him to people their age. There is an immediate connection between the two young individuals that is only downplayed and eventually derailed by the fact Vonnie is already in a relationship. Despite this fact, Bobby still tries to get close to Vonnie every chance he can and feels more relieved than sorry for Vonnie when she eventually comes to find out that her boyfriend, who also happens to be married, isn't going to break things off with his wife as he promised and as a result has broken up with Vonnie. Vonnie, which is short for Veronica, falls apart at the break-up and much to Bobby's fortune-right into his arms. As time passes, Bobby and Vonnie begin dating and fall genuinely in love. It is here that Café Society has a choice and rather than keeping with the fertile territory it is using a love triangle to explore it reverts back to Allen's safe ground of New York and allows for several other plot lines that have been bubbling beneath the surface to come to fruition, but in ways that feel as if Allen is drastically searching for a conclusion despite the characters experiencing emotions that refuse to die. It is disheartening to see a film that begins with such fire and crafts a more than interesting second act devolve into a meandering third act that jumbles solid yet thankless performances from the likes of Blake Lively, Parker Posey, and Paul Schneider, but Café Society succumbs to the ease of convention rather than the agony of originality.

There is a quote that goes, "The idea that none of us can truly know anything at all-not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves-is a thought we'd rather be shot in the arm with than face head on." It's a quote that has stuck with me for some time, often resonating when I try to justify the actions of others that I don't quite understand. Maybe there is motivation unseen from my perspective that would better explain the choices made, but in how this applies to the latest Woody Allen picture is by way of the fact that it genuinely wants to tell a genuine love story, but can't help but admit to itself that such fairytales rarely exist. That things hardly work out as they should or how most would hope. Eisenberg's Bobby and Stewart's Vonnie are in this state of doing things based on the way they think the world would conduct them whereas doing things by their emotional inclinations is ignored in favor of security. Neither Bobby nor Vonnie as well as the numerous people surrounding their regretful love affair will ever know what they had, truly, and unfortunately neither of them will ever understand the other and how, despite dreams and longings, they come to the conclusion they do. Not knowing the small, everyday moments that undoubtedly come to each of them that might give way to a thought or memory the other will never know came to be in their mind is gut-wrenchingly depressing and yet...life goes on. There is a line spoken by Leonard the academic commenting on the relentlessness of time that compliments this argument. In true Allen fashion, there are also a few biting lines of dialogue concerning religion and faith, particularly that of a belief in the afterlife, and how, despite not having time for such things when life is being lived full speed ahead, it is something to confide in-something to come to know-when the end is nigh. All of this feels like a way of Allen attempting to capture in words something he can't quite describe. Whether it be the illusion of love that Hollywood has spelled out on the screens for years or the idea that no matter how far we venture to try and start anew there is a comfortability and familiarity to home that will always win in the end. These are more indescribable elements that make up memories and factor into what shapes our ideas of happiness and satisfaction, but while Café Society tries to sum these up in a thesis statement some things are simply too grand to be contained.

Phil (Steve Carell) has a bone to pick with Vonnie in Woody Allen's Café Society.
What remains appealing about Café Society are the performances and the whole aesthetic of the film in general. While Eisenberg does well to track the confidence of his Allen surrogate in Bobby-going from much the timid, mumbling introvert to the more charismatic everyman that navigates the café society-the performance truly shines when he is again paired with Stewart. In their third film together the duo is once again magnetic with Stewart just as capably and more alluringly playing a young girl who knows what she wants, but isn't sure which of the many paths she's been offered is best to take to reach that destination. The couple bond over mocking the stars who live in big houses in order to feel important in Beverly Hills and share a thousand wicked laughs together commenting on the lavish Hollywood parties designed only for name dropping competitions. As this kind of couple who is doomed from the start Eisenberg and Stewart display that indescribable quality that personifies what viewers might think genuine love looks like and in doing so are better able to convey the themes and ideas Allen is reaching for without saying a word. Of course, Allen likes to talk and spout pretentious albeit mostly comical dialogue that could do for a little chopping, but in his defense there is also some genuinely great imagery here. In many a scenes it feels as if the director is really trying to convey his story and concepts through more than just quippy dialogue, but all the tools at his disposal. The color coordination of wardrobe and set design is impeccable-embellishing that mythic aura of old Hollywood while touches such as Stewart's wardrobe heavily favoring doll dresses emphasizes another, somewhat creepier aspect of the plot. Carell is pitch perfect here giving me hope he will again pop up in an Allen picture that places him front and center and utilized in the much the same fashion as Owen Wilson. Speaking of "pitch perfect" (terrible segue, I know) an early scene with Anna Camp captured in a single take that highlights Bobby's trepidation in approaching women is so dynamic in its execution and in establishing his character that I wanted to stand up and cheer. Of course, this excitement isn't sustained throughout the entirety of the runtime and for all the comedy Allen has ultimately crafted a portrait of deep heartache and how futile things still seem to be despite how much there can be to live for. It would be comical if it weren't so said, indeed.