A fine feather in the cap of latter-day Woody Allen’s filmography, Café Society has a persisting charm and a vibrating, yet bruised, heart.
Neither writer-director Woody Allen’s most enchanting, nor the blandest of his annual offerings, Café Society is a drama-comedy-romance set in the past but equipped with the modern day Woodster’s idiosyncrasies.
It’s affable, enjoyable, but sometimes painful to observe. It’s a romance but it’s not really about love. It’s about the love you keep hidden in the forced-repressed corner of your mind. The forbidden love that screws with your honour, that messes with your head.
If there’s one word you’ll take way from Café Society it’s “melancholy”. The ending is both sweet and bittersweet, hopeful for the future whilst pining for the past. It sort of takes your breath away in its vulnerability while (mostly) satiating your narrative wants. There’s so much beauty in its simplicity that it may go overlooked upon first viewing. But there are moments to be found in Café Society that are as poignant as anything Allen’s done in the past sixteen years.
The film follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) who uproots himself from the Bronx to the City of Angels to make a name for himself and escape his hometown blues. His uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a fast moving, smooth talking Hollywood agent with a powerful roster of clients and a beautiful secretary named Vonnie (played by Kirsten Stewart). As romantic fate would have it, a romantic triangle soon takes shape. Our narrator (Allen himself, natch) guides us through years in the life of lovers star-crossed in a continuously spinning galaxy.
Jesse Eisenberg superbly manages to subdue his performance here and more than redeems himself for the atrocities of Batman vs. Superman. The actor’s performance as a young man caught up in a most painful game of love feels as honest as anything he’s done since The Social Network.
He’s funny, heartbreaking, maddening, pitiable, and empathetic. And most impressively of all, he’s all of those things simultaneously. It’s a stellar performance and among one of the most endearing of Allen’s recent roster of muses (Eisenberg previously appeared in the Woodster’s 2012 meh-mediocre To Rome, With Love).
Of Eisenberg’s co-leads, Kirsten Stewart more than ably tops the charge. If you’ve written her off as the Twilight woman then here’s more proof why she’s holding her own in the big leagues. Also of note is Steve Carell, who swings wide but well within the park’s boundaries. He hits some triples in moments that allow him actual emotional pathos. He’s frequently in sublime form here.
The cast, in short, is in top form – even the underutilized Blake Lively is bewitching in a pivotal role during the film’s latter half. I would’ve loved to see more of Bobby’s thug brother Ben (Corey Stoll), however. Stoll, as he does, knocks it out of the park. But – Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos shows up for a scene to make you smile!
If there’s maybe one reason why Café Society might not hit as hard for some viewers it will be because it feels kind of familiar by this point in Allen’s filmography. The plot doesn’t involve anything sensational, lacking the universal hooks of some of his previous classics.
But its themes may run deeper for some viewers than others. On the surface it’s a light-hearted romp, but there are permanent bruises underneath its skin. There’s love found, love lost, love rediscovered, and love forever changed. The regrets and doubts about a romantic ultimatum hang over the heads of all the central characters. Bobby and Vonnie are haunted by the choices in their lives that left them standing at a crossroads with the proverbial “one that got away”.
While not as outright enjoyable as Allen’s lauded Midnight in Paris or as piercing as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, Café Society nevertheless elevates Woody Allen’s game up a bit higher than it has been in at least three years. The tender souls in the audience will be won over by the lingering spirit of Café Society’s damaged, yet steadfast, heart.
★ ★ ★ ★
Café Society is rated PG-13 and playing at a cinema near you.