Woody Allen’s new movie, set in Hollywood and New York of the 1930s, is very much the nostalgic yearnings of a veteran film-maker looking back at his obsessions
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell
Directed by: Woody Allen
Running time: 96 minutes
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
Woody Allen is 80 now, an old man still mastering a relatively young medium. You can hear it in his narration of Café Society, his 53rd movie and the latest in a lifetime of chronicling his own romantic attachments to New York City, jazz, the past, and beautiful, sometimes ditzy, women. His career is pretty well one long kvetch set to Gershwin, and the slight tremble in his voice as he tells us the story is the sound of a neurotic Jewish grandfather telling you another version of his one reminiscence: life is unfair and ridiculous, but look at the lovely costumes and can you hear the saxophone softly playing I’ll Take Manhattan?
Café Society finds Allen back from a whirlwind tour of Europe and America, having safely landed somewhere in Central Park and raising a glass of wine in a twilight toast to the city that never disappoints. It’s a slight film, but it’s slight in the sophisticated, world-weary — if schmaltzy — manner of the French, as if Allen went shopping for some open-ended auteurism on his travels and brought it back with him. “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” the hero says, and it’s not the wan humour of that remark that strikes you but the shrug.
The movie is set in New York and Hollywood, and it feels like a fantasy of Allen’s creative life: the glamour of Los Angeles, the bright lights of Broadway, the music of Harlem. It begins with a Hollywood agent named Phil (Steve Carell) at a fancy Beverly Hills party, rushing off to get a phone call because he’s expecting to hear from Ginger Rogers. Phil is always expecting to hear from someone: he can barely utter a sentence without mentioning Gary Cooper or Judy Garland or saying things like, “Adolphe Menjou is threatening to walk off the picture.”
But the call is from his sister Rose (a beautifully put-upon Jeannie Berlin) back in New York. Her son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg, a slightly hunched-over version of the Allen nebbish) is heading to L.A. to find a life more exciting than what he might find in the Bronx. Can Phil find something at his agency?
Bobby eventually gets a job as a gofer, and he’s shown around town by Phil’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart), an offbeat sweetheart who rejects Hollywood celebrity and yearns for something simpler. It’s a meeting of minds, or at least of tastes, and Bobby finds himself falling for her, but alas, Veronica has a boyfriend.
This section of Café Society has a slightly second-hand feel. Allen’s jokes about Los Angeles — best expressed in Annie Hall when Tony Roberts shows up in a stylish hazmat suit to rescue the Allen character from a car accident — are the humour of an outsider sneering at the tinsel. But it’s the Hollywood we all know, and Allen borrows from the lingua franca of our movie experience: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Barbara Stanwyck movies, fancy parties around swimming pools where people talk about Louis B. Meyer. Bobby is lost in it in a particular New York way (in a phone call home, he complains to his mother that “they call Danish sweet rolls,”) but he has Veronica to keep him interested.
The second chapter of the movie is set in New York, where Bobby returns to work for his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who has opened a fabulous nightclub that glitters in chrome and leather. Allen has recruited Italian master Vittorio Storaro (Last Tango In Paris, Apocalypse Now) as his cinematographer, and he creates a vivid world of muted pastels and crystalline enchantment.
Back in Manhattan, Bobby meets a second Veronica (Blake Lively, giving a performance of sexy maturity that’s unusual in American cinema). Allen is fascinated with the idea of doubles — Melinda and Melinda being just one recent example — that perhaps reflect his interest in a sentimental nostalgia for the past and his twitchy fear of the future. True love is both present and missing, and you are sure it’s there only when you’re standing on the edge of the pond in Central Park, preferably dressed in tuxedo or evening gown, and the soft music begins to play under the familiar cityscape.
It’s melancholy rather than humourous. Allen’s films have become comedies in the classic sense — the opposite of tragedies — rather than in the sense of, like, being funny, but Café Society does have a few laughs, some of them in Yiddish. It adds a lightness that allows us to smile at its cruelties.
Sprinkled throughout are a few clanking anachronisms — people in the 1930s saying “You have this deer-in-the-headlights quality” or “Are you kidding me?” — that make you wonder how carefully Allen rewrites his scripts. Moreover, the movie feels contemporary: the characters are Allen prototypes in dress-up clothes. His weakness is that he has always been a filmmaker in a hurry. But what might have been sloppiness in a younger director becomes charming here. We forgive his slightly unraveled plot because it comes in service of a hard-won ambiguity. He’s an octogenarian looking back and finding not the good old days, but the bittersweet ones.
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