It’s a little off-putting to see a title card for Amazon Studios written in Woody Allen’s trademark Windsor font during the opening credits for “Cafe Society” — over jazz standards, no less. The new addition to the familiar Allen credit sequence serves as a glaring reminder that time has passed, with tradition being engulfed by the new.
“Cafe Society” is a glittery, elegant take on that same idea. Just as New York and Jewish as the films of his 1970s heyday, Allen’s latest is a story of the passage of time — a common notion Allen attempts to make fresh again.
Jesse Eisenberg plays a doe-eyed Bobby Dorfman. Naive and optimistic, he makes the trek from the Bronx to Hollywood to make something of himself, working for his rich uncle Phil (Steve Carell) in the glitzy racket of the motion picture industry. He falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil’s pretty, Hollywood-jaded secretary, who drops quippy cool girl lines like “I’d rather be life-sized.”
But, of course, there needs to be a love triangle. This one’s a doozy: Bobby and Phil are both in love with Vonnie. If you can get over the borderline weirdness of an uncle and his nephew competing for the same woman, you’ll find the plot is the stuff of a breezy, bittersweet romance.
The first chunk of the film is full of Allen-narrated cutaways and awkward encounters just to remind you that we’re in a Woody Allen universe. It’s all cynical “we’re all gonna die anyway” rhetoric tied in with the shallow beauty of Hollywood.
Interactions between characters are infiltrated by the extravagance of the Hollywood lifestyle. When Phil tries to have a heart-to-heart with Vonnie, industry suck-ups keep interrupting by unnecessarily mentioning our favorite 1930s stars — William Powell this, Judy Garland that. There’s a later party anecdote referencing Errol Flynn’s infamous sexual prowess. It’s unclear whom Allen is making nods to with the incessant name-dropping, but the references merely feel pedantic and repetitive.
Apparently Allen doesn’t feel the need to write completely original work anymore and just keeps churning out disillusioned, bittersweet romances. It’s worked for the writer-director thus far, though, and like “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Annie Hall,” “Cafe Society” actually is funny. One of Bobby’s Yiddish-speaking relatives back home says, “Live each day like it’s your last and someday you’ll be right.” Woody Allen films let you laugh at being miserable; we get it.
Despite the controversy that hangs over Allen’s career, he can write a damn good woman character. He’s responsible for producing some of film’s most genuine, emotionally expansive female characters — Mary in “Manhattan,” for example. Often full of insecurities yet lush with intelligence and compassion, the women in Woody Allen’s films are true gems. Here, Blake Lively’s Veronica is radiant, plastered-on smile and all; Parker Posey’s Rad is quirky-cool. In fact, the women should have been the stars of the film instead of Eisenberg and Carell, whose too polite-looking faces and general thickheadedness make them uninteresting main characters.
Vonnie is the strongest character of “Cafe Society,” but Kristen Stewart does her no justice. While Stewart’s nervous, laid-back disposition is intriguing in the 21st century, she is somehow painfully out of place in the 1930s. Imagine a lovely, matured Bella using the word “hobnob.” Sure, the decidedly modern-minded Vonnie is meant to be set apart from the dizzying glamour of the 1930s, but Stewart is a walking anachronism.
As it turns out, all Bobby loved in California was Vonnie, so the remainder of the film takes place in New York. Again, Allen reprises his worn message that New Yorkers are bad at Los Angeles living. In Jay Gatsby fashion, Bobby opens a nightlife hotspot called Cafe Society, where he can provide good times for folks as he wallows in the repercussions of his lost love.
Bobby has his “Of all the gin joints” moment when Vonnie arrives at Cafe Society — and again in his life. She now embraces the excessive lifestyle she used to ridicule — and like the numbskull he is, Bobby thinks her a hypocrite.
Allen’s point is that people change. Again, leave it to the strong female character to drive that home. Time passes, and you may still love those from your past or, in the overwrought West versus East metaphor, choose fancy L.A. restaurants over Jewish delis.
“Cafe Society” allows time to happen and assures us that gray areas are OK. Bobby says, “I guess some feelings don’t ever die. Is that good or bad?” It’s a stale but worthwhile revelation — like the rest of the film.