Review: Café Society
A visually sumptuous Woody Allen comedy of melancholy and lost opportunityYou would not be entirely mistaken in thinking that Woody Allen has only made one film to which he has progressively added a variety of chapters on his way to becoming an 80 year-old filmmaker. So distinct is his style of humour that we all know what is meant by ‘a Woody Allen comedy’, a sub-genre characterised by the angst-ridden self-deprecation that the master of incongruity brings to his work. Cafe Society (2016) has all the hallmarks of Allen's signature style plus a feast of visual pleasures that signal a career in full bloom.
As with many Allen films, the plotline is less important than the time and place, the characters and their emotions. Set in the 1930s, the story follows young Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) who leaves his father's New York jewellery business for the promises and bright lights of Los Angeles. He lands a job with uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who runs a top-tier talent agency then falls in love with the boss's secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart). But things turn messy when his love life becomes a love triangle and he is the odd man out. Bobby returns to New York and finds success in running a nightclub for the rich and famous but the triangle remains a spectre of happiness, so near yet out of reach.
The simplicity of this understated plot belies the craftsmanship that is obvious in the film. The period sets, costumes, and 1930s stylisation of both the high-life and the ordinary are sumptuously beautiful, with many scenes reminiscent of the colour palettes and opulent settings in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013). The vibrant sound of the Jazz Age punctuates the narrative to lift its stories of love, greed, ambition and good old-fashion gangster high-jinx. In this heady mix, wealth and cultural power exist incongruously with the shallowness of the Hollywood dream factory, and all is mocked through the quirky lens of Woody Allen humour.
Jesse Eisenberg does Allen almost better than Allen. His down-beat facial expressions and body language evoke self-mocking humour, pathos and yearning to belong. Kristen Stewart matches him for emotional range and nuance, and lights up the screen whenever the camera dwells on her face. Their synergy spans the high idealism of youth to the low pragmatics of life in show-business, and throughout it all Eisenberg conveys the introspection that Allen perfected through a dialogue-rich script that is fast, clever and funny. This is an engaging and enjoyable film to inhale, one that roller-coasts from innocence to the melancholy of lost opportunity and bemused wonder over what life really means…just like all Woody Allen films.