Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Woody Allen’s work is compared to his previous films. For about twenty-five years now we’ve been hearing “Well, it’s no Annie Hall,” or “Hannah and Her Sisters, now that was a good movie.” A long-lived and prolific director can be the victim of his own success.
To be sure, Allen has not made what I would consider one of his best since Bullets Over Broadway, and that was twenty-two years ago. His last good film was Blue Jasmine, four films ago, but I’m glad to say that after three so-so films, Cafe Society is a pleasant souffle. It does not certainly break new ground. He still uses the same credit font, it has plenty of music that we can imagine he listens to, and it’s incredibly nostalgic. In some ways it reminds me most of Radio Days, although now Allen is far older and probably thinking about the past even more than he ever did.
Set in the 1930s, Cafe Society takes a look at film business in Los Angeles through rose-colored glasses, and spends almost as much time in New York. There’s a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge at dusk, the lights twinkling (this film is in color) that rivals any of the shots in Manhattan. And, as with Bullets Over Broadway, Allen romanticizes organized crime. A man will go to the electric chair, but his Jewish mother will wonder if his conversion to Christianity is worse.
Jesse Eisenberg is the lead, but he is not a stand-in for the classic Allen role, as he was in From Rome With Love. His Bobby Dorfman is no nebbish, he’s self-assured and gets not one but two girls. He comes from New York to hit up his uncle, Steve Carell, a high-powered agent, for a job. Carell gives him a job running errands, where he meets a secretary (Kristen Stewart). He falls in love with her (the way Stewart plays the role, who wouldn’t?). She tells him she’s seeing someone. Problem–the man she’s seeing is Carell.
I found it interesting that when this twist is revealed, and it’s fairly early in the movie so don’t hate me, it’s not Eisenberg that finds out, but Carell. Part of the appeal of Cafe Society is the depth of the characters. Carell cannily plays a man who may be powerful but it also a mensch. Eisenberg, told that by Carell that he will be leaving his wife, guesses it’s for a beautiful movie star. “It’s not a movie star,” Carell growls, “I’m not shallow.” And indeed he isn’t. Carell could have easily played a stereotype, but Allen’s script and his performance makes him well-rounded.
Cafe Society is a comedy, but it doesn’t have yuks, it’s more of a smile movie. Most of the funny lines belong to Eisenberg’s parents, old world Jews Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott. They bicker like many of Allen’s Jewish parents, from Annie Hall to Radio Days. Stott says of Berlin, “She’s no beauty queen, but I stuck with her.” Corey Stoll co-stars as Eisenberg’s gangster brother, and we get morbid humor such as Stoll saying of a nightclub owner, “We’re trying to persuade him to sell.” Cut to a man being dumped in a pit and being buried in cement.
The film does have a tie to Jewishness. There’s a scene early on in which Eisenberg, lonely, hires a call girl. She’s late, and he’s not really in the mood anymore (I’ve never had that happen). When he learns she’s Jewish he’s incredulous at the idea of a Jewish prostitute. The scene doesn’t work and should have been left on the cutting room floor, but it indicates that Allen can’t let go of his days in Brooklyn.
But who is the star of this picture? It’s Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer. The man who photographed Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now had never worked with Allen before, who collects great D.P.s. The lighting of Stewart, and later Blake Lively, gives the film a kind of glamour that doesn’t hardly exist anymore. Beverly Hills swimming pools, wood-paneled offices, a New York nightclub, all exist as if pulled from our imaginaations. Credit must also go to production designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Suzy Benzinger, but Storaro gives it a glow that will make any fan of old films sigh in contentment.
So, this isn’t great Woody. Maybe even not top twenty. But it’s a fine film, with great performances, and award-worthy photography.