A star-studded cast, visually striking 1930s Hollywood setting, adulterous scandals, unrequited love, gangsters, glamour, and perhaps the most prolific filmmaker of our time; this should be a formula for another hit for writer/director Woody Allen. Unfortunately, Café Society joins an exclusive club of Allen’s more stale works. As Allen’s first wide release since 2003’s box office flop Anything Else, Amazon Studios and Lionsgate plan a mass distribution of the film on August 12. Head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price, has stated that most films they plan to produce will have a theatrical release – a system that will help market the Prime Instant Video platform and their new films alike. Even if Café Society is not a box office success, any Woody Allen film has the potential to draw subscribers and accrue views on a streaming platform.
It is a difficult undertaking to summarize the fractured collection of scenes that would be better described as related vignettes than an actual plot. The passage of time lacks clarity and is often forcefully illustrated by the overbearing, redundant narrator. Voiced by Woody Allen, the narration rarely exhibits the comedic personality you’d expect and often feels like a cheap replacement for exposition. Spanning over presumably a decade, our ignorant but witty Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) goes from aspiring Hollywood agent to successful New York City socialite club manager, a career that chooses him as a result of his gangster brother Ben Dorfman’s (Corey Stoll) “acquisition” of a nightclub. Love interest Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) is a young woman from Nebraska who represents a relatable dichotomy of the desire for a glitzy, lavish lifestyle and the preference of a humble one – a common fable of which some people convince themselves in order to avoid wondering whether they are exceptional or ordinary. Her decision between the two is embodied by a love triangle between Phil Stern (Steve Carell), the ostentatious Hollywood agent, and his young nephew Bobby Dorfman, the once wide-eyed Hollywood newcomer who has resolved to move back to New York after becoming disillusioned with the movie business and its fringe benefits. From there, the plot spins off in numerous directions, often coming back to the examination of this lingering love triangle.
Allen has consistently looked for new actors to portray the characters that he once would’ve played himself. Owen Wilson played the role surprisingly well in Midnight In Paris (2011) while Larry David was less than stunning in Whatever Works (2009). Looking at Jesse Eisenberg’s history of awkward and jittery yet clever characters, it seems as though he was born to be the new Woody Allen. Unfortunately, something doesn’t quite connect. Allen’s indignant snarky behavior is always accompanied by a non-threatening, self-deprecating awareness that provokes affection. Eisenberg can’t accomplish the same likeability and comes off as arrogant and egotistical. His vanity develops through the duration of the film, but prior to its peak, the character fails to inspire a much-needed sense of endearment that would drive the viewer to remain sympathetic. Stewart and Carell’s characters are well acted but one-dimensional, which also impedes the viewers’ ability to relate or feel compassion.
Though Woody Allen may have fallen short of an enticing plot, that isn’t to say that this film isn’t beautifully directed. His electrically antique coloring employs recurring notes of sepia. His omniscient composition uses seamless camera movement and his smoothly hypnotic music selection of intoxicating blues-jazz and accordion-heavy French romance tunes all come together in near-perfect execution, bringing Allen’s perpetually romantic depiction of New York City to a new cosmopolis, Los Angeles.
“’An unexamined life is not worth living’ but the examined life ain’t no bargain,” stated by Eisenberg’s intellectual brother-in-law Leonard (Stephen Kunken), sums up the film as a certain melancholic verisimilitude one may experience when reminiscing on their own life. This film is a self-examination of Bobby Dorfman, who seems to embody Woody Allen’s own nostalgic yet disillusioned sentiment, displaying a tragic fallacy of love, a morally ambiguous sense of human decency, and a film industry that only becomes transparent when looking out from the inside. Stated by Eisenberg’s character, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.” This functions as a descriptive preface for Café Society, when realizing that the sadism is not solely apportioned to its characters but to the viewers as well. The film falls short of the provocative and poignant philosophical elements that Allen has masterfully delivered in previous films, which would be excusable if the comedy had not lacked stimulating jauntiness and effective timing. See this film for its beautiful shots and nostalgic depictions of a period forgotten. Its greatest flaw is Allen’s legendary reputation that fails to be fulfilled.
Café Society opens wide on July 29 2016
Zander Massey is a film buff, writer, and aspiring director. He is interested in philosophy and hiking, often synchronizing both. His area of expertise is critical analysis of art-house films and cinematic television. Zander has studied the intricacies of conflict resolution, having traveled to Northern Ireland and South Africa where he worked with political parties and NGOs. He believes that pride is for the weak and considers himself to be a dilettante.