Director: Woody Allen Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Blake Lively Runtime: 96 minutes
If you want a taste of the glitz and glamour of 1930s Hollywood, Café Society seems to have it all. It has the lavish parties, the decadent clubs and even the criminal undercurrent all on display with lush, saturated colours and the snappy dialogue Woody Allen is known for. But just like Jay Gatsby, Café Society is all style and no substance.
The film’s plot is relatively simple; a young Bronx native moves to LA and falls in love with his movie exec Uncle’s enchanting secretary. He soon finds LA isn’t what he hoped it would be and returns to New York. Although he finds love and success, his time in LA casts a long shadow on his happiness.
Café Society owes a lot to the popularity of Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan. Gatsby employs the narration of Nick Carraway both to stay faithful to the source material and to use an outside perspective on the American Dream to show how it dazzles and eventually disappoints. Café Society uses a narrator seemingly for no reason apart from aligning itself with Luhrmanns’ film. Narration as a filmic device tends to distance the viewer by drawing attention to the film’s scaffolding. In Café Society the narration brings you out of the Hollywood bubble but without providing any social commentary, which is a major failing in this performance-led film.
This film is propped up by the performances of its stars. Steve Carell strikes a balance as the charming talent agent Phil Stern, adored by all of of the Bright Young Things in the biz but near-intolerable to anyone else. His incessant name-dropping and sycophancy could easily render him insufferable but he plays it off with quiet charm and the sense that he’s in on the joke.
Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg share the screen again as ‘Vonny’, a former Hollywood dreamer who’s learned to see past the artifice and Bobby Dorfman, a New Yorker yet to be chewed up and spat out by LA. Eisenberg delivers some funny lines and plays the part with more charisma than you would expect – he is clearly Allen’s insert. In the most compelling scene of the film, Stewart shows that ‘Vonny’ has become the shallow, name-dropping Trophy Wife she used to hate in a brilliant stroke of acting.
However, the standout has to be Bobby’s mother Rose. She plays the frustrated Jewish mother type perfectly. Her comedic timing is on point, when she laments the fact that Bobby’s gangster brother was “First a murderer, now a Christian, I don’t know what’s worse!” the theatre erupted in laughter.
But it’s not enough to save this film. Allen uses all the trappings of the Golden Age of Melodrama, using lush colour, bathing everything in golden lighting and creating deep space Orson Welles would doff his hat to. But unlike Golden Age Melodrama and unlike The Great Gatsby, there’s no conflict in Café Society. It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for Eisenberg’s character when not only does he get to run a high-end club and completely avoid any of the legal trouble that befalls his brother and business partner but also gets to be happily married to Blake freaking Lively.
Overall, Café Society really is well made and it should be a fun way for anyone who loves the 1930s aesthetic or Classic Hollywood to kill 90 minutes.(2.5 / 5)