It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of Woody Allen, both as a person or as a filmmaker. While I’ll leave my personal opinion of him aside, I simply don’t find many of his movies as engaging as a lot of other people do. There are the classics like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” as well as newer films such as “Midnight in Paris” and “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” but aside from those films, I’ve never felt a deep connection to Allen’s films. Allen’s films seem like films made by him, for people like him: pseudo-intellectual hipsters that have never been told no in their entire life. Of course, he has a wider audience than just that, but for every film student I cross quoting some pretentious Allen film, I die a little bit more inside, if not only for the principle of it all.
But “Café Society” won me over in its grounded charm.
What was different about “Café Society” is that it had all the charm of what we’ve come to know from the better Allen films, with a grounded nature that made the film feel different from a typical film by him.
“Café Society” follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a Bronx native who moves to Hollywood in the 1930s, seeking help from his big-shot producer uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). After making a splash with Phil and his friends, Bobby seeks the company of Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is flattered by his attention, but already has a boyfriend. Along the way, Bobby meets friends in big-time New York socialites Rad (Parker Posey) and her husband Steve (Paul Schneider), as well as a new love-interest in Veronica (Blake Lively), though his feelings for Vonnie are from over.
“Café Society” works most of its wonder in its characters, as they embody the time period and setting that the film seeks to replicate to a T. You can say what you want about Allen, but when he makes a period piece, he makes sure to get everything he can right about the time, which I can appreciate. The sun-drenched atmosphere of ’30s Los Angeles is an enchantingly glamorous setting and altogether melancholy at the same time, given the circumstances of some of the film’s events. Meanwhile, things are just as hopping when the film returns to New York, with its fabulous nightlife portrayed and simply extravagant characters introduced. Allen has this atmosphere down pat.
Another thing that is always a constant in Allen films is that the acting is always spectacular in them. Eisenberg is doing his best to mask his turn as Lex Luthor in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” with smaller roles with more nuances to them than the popular villain. Here, you would never think he could be so hammy in a film, as his turn as Bobby is sweetly awkward with a twinge of something revolting about him as well, something Allen’s protagonists seem to always have. Carrell is wonderfully goofy and sometimes a bit depressing. Meanwhile, Stewart is the shining star of the film as the enigmatic Vonnie. Of course, it’s a bit hard to understand why Bobby would doubt Veronica as his love when her love for him is pure, she is an interesting person and oh so stunning, but Bobby always has his sights on Vonnie and Stewart’s performance convinces us why. She’s elegant and naïve, while also magnetizing and a bit maddening; Stewart plays every card in her deck with Vonnie and it pays off wonderfully.
The film, while Allen’s first film with Amazon Studios, also is one of his more visually unique films. Being the first Allen film shot on digital cameras, as well as in the unique and pleasant 2.00:1 aspect ratio (also seen in “Jurassic World”), it has an aesthetic about it that feels entirely new, yet comfortably classic. Often times, the film feels inherently modern, but equally as much, the film feels like something you would catch on Turner Classic Movies on a quiet night. The duality of such makes it feel inconsistent at points, but it does work.
Though, despite all this, the one word I could describe “Café Society” in is the word “fine.” There’s nothing show-stopping about it, nor is there anything remotely wrong with it, it’s simply fine. The grounded nature of the film make it feel far less pretentious and egotistical as some of Allen’s other films, but holds that comfortable charm that make his enjoyable movies the way they are. The cast is as game as any Allen cast and its unique visual styling sets the film apart from the pack of sometimes indistinguishable Allen films. This isn’t the Allen film for your weird cousin, nor is it the one for your grandma, this is the Allen film that the entire family can enjoy in its fineness.