Café Society is beautifully shot and features some good performances (with Kristen Stewart the standout), but it’s a rom-com without much rom or com, and all rather slight.
Taking great expectations into the cinema virtually guarantees disappointment, but Woody Allen’s latest, Café Society, sounded enticing. Great title, I thought, especially in context with the setting – Hollywood’s Golden Era of the 30s. Could this one hit the heights of Woody’s last truly great rom-com, the inspired charmer Midnight in Paris?
Short answer: no. Café Society doesn’t have the novelty, wit or – most of all – the irresistible romance of Midnight in Paris. There’s too much head in the story and not enough heart, and many of the jokes fall flat. But the news is not all bad.
As a nostalgic, idealised depiction of a bygone era, Café Society enchants, thanks largely to the superb cinematography, which imbues 30s Hollywood society and surrounds with a seductive soft-focus saturated-colour glow. In fact, this setting is the most romantic aspect of the film. Elegantly attired women and dapper suited men party at luxe mansions. As they chat over cocktails by the pool, aspirants to stardom or other glam roles within the movie industry position themselves like chess pieces, power players namedropping impressively and holding court before sycophants. It’s all rather F. Scott Fitzgerald in look, with a bit o West Coast crassness stirred in.
Young buck from the Bronx and would-be screenwriter Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, clearly Woody’s stand-in) is dropped into this heady wonderland courtesy of his influential middle-aged hotshot producer uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), and soon finds it’s not his thing. However, Phil’s secretary, the beautiful but down-to-earth Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) is, and Bobby begins a relentless pursuit of her. When he discovers she has been carrying on a secret affair with Uncle Phil, he returns to New York.
With a leg-up from his gangster brother, Bobby creates a new life for himself as a jazz club owner and marries the delightful Veronica (Blake Lively). Yep, another Veronica. Years later he and the first Vonnie cross paths again and realise their story is not quite over – or is it?
All the performances are good, as you’d expect of a cast of this quality. Kristen Stewart is the standout. The camera loves her, and there’s an onscreen magnetism about her that elevates her character. She manages to make Vonnie more interesting and complex than Woody writes her.
Truth be told, though, none of the characters have much going for them or are particularly likeable. This is a problem in a rom-com. Romance struggles for air if you don’t identify with or care about the characters, and another dampener here is that their decisions – and non-decisions – add up to a principal love story without hope that never really gets going in the first place.
There is a reason for this, beautifully articulated at the conclusion of the film, a wistful New Year’s Eve rumination on paths not followed and loves not nurtured. If only Woody had built the film around this rumination and tapped into the yearning inherent in it, instead of keeping the spotlight trained on the uninspiring Bobby, and the dramatically lack-lustre life he makes for himself back in NY – and if only he’d stayed with the 30s Hollywood setting…
But the job of the reviewer is to assess what is, not what might have been. And on that basis, I’ve gotta say Café Society is middling by Woody’s standards. He won’t lose any fans with this one, but he won’t gain any, either. At this stage, that’s neither here nor there, but fans like me will continue to hope that our man still has another great film in him, and that it will be the next one.
Movie website: http://www.cafesocietymovie.com/
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