As a director, Woody Allen has been a ‘film a year’ man for what now seems something beyond an eternity. Café Society, his latest excellent release, underlines that the actor-writer-director shows no sign of slowing down at eighty years of age and a career spanning six decades. In fact, Allen seems to have reached immortality in the film world in that he has always been with us while very many others have come and gone. Café Society is also another entry this year of a film that is concerned with the inside legend of the Golden Age of Hollywood, after the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! which was the high profile opening film of the Berlinale festival back in February. Café Society opened the Cannes Film Festival in May, the third film directed by Allen to do so.
A comedy drama, the simple plot concerns a young Jewish man who moves to 1930s Los Angeles to work for his talent agent uncle then falls in love with his uncle’s secretary. Such a regular premise demands an original spin which is achieved easily and engagingly in master craftsman Allen’s hands. Jesse Eisenberg plays the initially clumsy but not so naive Bobby Dorfman who has come to Los Angeles from New York entranced by the Hollywood Dream. Steve Carell plays his Uncle Phil, with Kristen Stewart as ‘Vonnie’ (Veronica), the love interest… of both men. Bobby falls for Vonnie at first sight, openly informing Uncle Phil of his intentions but when he attempts to charm her she claims to have a journalist boyfriend. In reality she is having a clandestine affair with Phil, who is already married. However, Bobby and Vonnie soon start a romance of their own.
Aside from the engaging love triangle, there is an abundance of racy and comical elements that encapsulate an interpretation of what Hollywood life was reportedly like during this period. The soundtrack of 1930s jazz adds to this authenticity. There is a nod to the social situation of the time as Bobby’s uncle by marriage has Communist sympathies (something Hollywood would persecute in later years) and his other brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), is a gangster protective to his family’s concerns, not least where intimidating neighbours are concerned.
The film moves from Los Angeles to New York when Bobby returns to run a posh art-deco nightclub with his gangster brother Ben. The business grows and soon becomes a famous hangout for the rich and powerful, with clients ranging from wannabes, socialites, politicians and gangsters. Bobby’s life also takes a turn for the better when he meets divorcee Veronica Hayes (played by Blake Lively). However, his past in Los Angeles comes back as a visitant to his new found happiness in New York.
This is apparently the first film that Woody Allen has shot using a digital format. Whether this has budgetary as well as artistic motivations, the choice definitely works as advances in the technology give the film a sumptuous period look that almost replicates the first regular colour film stock from the 1930s. The balanced ensemble cast doesn’t have any major contemporary star names this time but the supporting roles include familiar faces such as Parker Posey, Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin. Although he appears on-screen less often as an actor these days, Allen does have a role to play in Café Society as the voice-over narrator.
What’s also important in the aesthetic here is that, while not shying away from the deceptions, superficiality and undercurrents of violence, there is nothing crude – simply witty dialogue and appropriately fast and seamless editing which takes episodes of the story forward at every juncture. The film also ends just at the right time and in its own way complete as the lives of the main protagonists have moved on and everything is plausible. Without any dramatic plot turns or implausibility, it was fitting to have a denouement of sorts at this stage in a 95-minute film which charms as much as it entertains.