Woody Allen’s filmmaking has become something of a retirement hobby. At least, that’s what Cafe Society feels like to an extent. As I watched, I sort of wondered ‘Did Woody Allen just get bored of rewatching his own archive and decide to make a Woody Allen film where he gets Jesse Eisenberg to play young Woody Allen?’ If that sounds like something you would enjoy, you will enjoy Cafe Society. Luckily, I did enjoy it, a lot.
Full of delicious colouring and stylizing over every scene in a way that always feels essential rather than added for the sake of it, Cafe Society is a fun tale in the 1930s, about a young Woody Allen, sorry, Jesse Eisenberg, playing Bobby Dorfman, who moves to LA hoping that his uncle Phil can help him get some work out there and become part of the Hollywood scene. Phil, played by Steve Carrell (in a performance wonderfully reminiscent of his portrayal Mark Baum in The Big Short earlier this year, both requiring Carrell to play an individual uncomfortable with his power), offers him work and asks his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around. Bobby is instantly infatuated, especially by Vonnie’s desires and efforts to remain a grounded person; not taken in by LA’s flashy pretencious celebrity oriented party scenes. Sadly for Bobby, Vonnie already has a partner for she is uncle Phil’s mistress.
From here, the film bounds joyously in lots of directions and all of them quite satisfactory, full of surprises, and will not be spoilt. Bobby’s family life with his amusing gangster brother has scenes worthy of his own sketch show, (Corey Stoll), his lazy and fussily religious father, gloriously played by Ken Stott brings some of the biggest laughs over his inconsistent reactions and values when it comes to his and other’s judaism. However, as noted by so many others, it is Kristen Stewart as Vonnie who steals the show. She makes character believable in both farce and dark situations. The film is glued together by never knowing what Vonnie’s next actions will be, but completely believing in her every move to control her love triangle heavy life.
Whilst this is not Jesse Eisenberg’s or Steve Carell’s finest work, nor Woody Allen’s, it is a joyous 98 minutes. It is wallpapered with territory and tropes we’ve seen so many times before, and so much of the comedy and setting implies that Woody Allen really wishes that he could have been playing Bobby and expressing whatever it is that he is expressing about elites and socialites and the power of upper-class networks. It does feel indulgent, but so much of the result is joyous that it does not matter.
There are many self-concious elements to the film and the colour-scheme and editing are part of that, with wipes and sepias that become themselves-referenced in the character’s actions, that I forgave all of Allen’s repetitive and less engaging moments. A film about old-hollywood instantly draws comparison to Hail, Ceaser! from March this year, which is vastly superior; but two tonally different adventures shouldn’t be compared just because of their settings.
Some of the dialogue leaves a little to be desired, and the narration by Allen himself is something you have to get used to, but you could do a lot worse than this silly and fun 98 minutes. If playing locally, worth seeing on a big screen; for I fear that a small screen will diminish the sheer variety and gorgeousness on offer. A return to form? Or maybe Allen’s having so much fun and doesn’t care so much, that the result is more fun for everyone else as well.