With Woody Allen films, at least in recent times, the viewer either gets a movie that’s instantly forgettable (Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man) or instant classics (Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine). Café Society breaks the trend by falling between these two categories by being neither a classic nor unmemorable. Drenched in nostalgia like many of Allen’s best films the movie never really seems to come off as a film instead of incredibly well-crafted idea and so at times it’s possible to lose interest.
The movie is theoretically about emotion and passionate love but surprisingly (considering the director) never really manages to find the right chord that makes it seem like this passion is felt. Jesse Eisenberg is the latest actor who seems to be playing the onscreen role of a young Woody Allen and easily nails the role. His scene with the prostitute may be the best Woody Allen scene not actually starring the man himself.
The film is separated into two main arcs -Eisenberg’s Bobby moving to Los Angeles and his attempts to make it out there while falling for his uncle’s secretary Vonnie( played by Kirsten Stewart in an excellent performance) and his return to New York to run a nightclub with his mobster brother. The first half of the film is the better with the structure of Bobby and Vonnie’s relationship and the barriers to it more believable. The second half seems somewhat rushed and while some of the vignettes are entertaining (especially those featuring his brother, Ben) they don’t seem to merge seamlessly enough to stop the story from jarring.
In terms of the technical aspects, this is Allen’s first film with acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (The Last Emperor, Apocalypse Now) and also his first film in digital. The result is a beautifully shot film which definitely brings the viewer into the Golden Age of 1930s Hollywood. The scenes in the nightclub especially are representative of the excellent visuals of the film.
Café Society is not one of Allen’s best films but it is his best film since Blue Jasmine three years ago. In sentiment and style it is closer to 2011’s Midnight in Paris (though my bias will always lean towards a Parisian setting even on scripts of equal measure, which this script is not) but with repeated emphasis on older Allen works set in New York. The total movie feels as though Allen was happy self-referencing rather than challenging himself and while that isn’t a bad thing when the body of work that’s being referenced is of such quality, the film never really speaks to the heart. And that’s a problem when you’re watching a love story.