Woody Allen‘s Cafe Society is an attractively composed period dramedy (a few laughs but hardly a torrent) that plays it mild and steady and familiar. But it’s a fine Woody hit-list thing with a compelling if familiar moral undertow. There’s no way anyone who’s even half-acquainted with the Allen realm is going to be disappointed. Is it a bust-out in the vein of Midnight in Paris? No, but it’ll do until the next one comes along. It’s fine, it’s good — just don’t expect any big surprises.
Set in Los Angeles and New York over a two-year period in the mid ’30s, Cafe Society is a romantic triangle piece mixed with a hard-knocks, get-tough saga. It’s witty more than funny, but it’s really great when the laughs land. How many good laughs does it have? Not more than 20 or 25. I laughed maybe 10 or 12 times but I didn’t mind because it’s not about hah-hah but about fuck-me.
It’s a romance-gone-wrong thing that deals with sadness, moral ambiguity, disappointment. It’s too mired in hurt to be called a light-touch thing, but it does kind of glide along in a way that lets you know nothing awful or grotesque will occur.
It’s the story of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young Jewish guy who comes out to Hollywood in 1936 to ask his hotshot agent uncle (Steve Carell) for a job, and who soon falls in love with Carell’s romantically entangled secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), only to gradually discover that her admitted-to relationship is not with a “journalist”, as she tells Bobby, but with fucking Uncle Phil.
The film adopts a kind of novelistic tone by simultaneously focusing on members of Eisenberg’s New York-based family — his gangster brother Ben (a bewigged Corey Stoll), whining kvetch-mom (Jeannie Berlin), grumbling dad (Ken Stott) and a sister or a sister-in-law or aunt (A Serious Man‘s Sara Lennick) with a political humanist-minded husband (Stephen Kunken)…I’m not clearly recalling but something along these lines.
Like a Tolstoy novel, everyone’s caught up in everyone else’s lives and difficulties and confusions. And like any Jewish family created by Allen, nobody’s tremendously happy.
Thematically Cafe Society is a re-scrambling of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives and Bullets Over Broadway. It lifts off the ground, but with re-heated steam. And yet it’s pleasing and handsome (a combination of digital, amber-lit photography by the great Vittorio Storaro and exquisite ’30s-era production design by Santo Loquasto) and is very appealingly acted, especially by Stewart, secondarily by Eisenberg.
I tweeted this morning that “in her performance as a mild-mannered heartbreaker with ambivalent values, Stewart gives her first luscious movie-star performance.” I also said she’s photographed and lighted by Storaro “in such a glowing, amber-toned way that you can’t help but melt a little bit.
I also tweeted morning that the film is “a dark, pessimistic comedy that feels pat and by-the-numbers, but at the same time is pleasing and well-ordered and philosophically agreeable.” Yes, It’s comedically glum in the usual Allen ways (sooner or later life will break your heart, most likely due to someone you admire or love betraying or letting you down in some way) but at the same time it’s mild-mannered. It never digs down or loses its temper or goes nuts or varies in tone, but it’s dryly satisfying.
Cafe Society is familiar in 100 different ways, and it’s constantly about heavy stuff — infidelity, romantic triangle, pain, loneliness, disappointment, ethical ambiguity, hiding one’s true feelings — but it’s never less than engaging.
I love Allen’s fatalistic view of things (basically summed up as “life is pain and it’s over much too quickly”) and so I felt constantly in synch with Cafe Society, which basically says that no matter what people long for or dream about “life has its own agenda” and that either way it’ll never stop being “a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.”
One of the stand-out lines is “live every day as if it’s your last because one day, it will be.” For some reason this line sank in the deepest, and it’s not even a joke. I was also taken with “an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined one is still no bargain.” (Or words to that effect.)