WARNING: PLOT REVELATIONS TO FOLLOW
IT IS THE thirties…a time when Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford were just two of the legends that lit up the glittering escapist fantasy of Hollywood. At the centre of this world of glitz, glamour and gossip sits super agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a deal-making, name-dropping master schmoozer. And into his crowded life comes his nephew, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a gauche wide-eyed young man, escaping the claustrophobia of the family jewelry business back in New York and in search of all the possibilities Hollywood has to offer.
He finds more than possibilities. He finds Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to whom he’s introduced by her boss, Uncle Phil (“go show the kid around” Phil instructs her) and with whom he is immediately smitten. But she’s reluctant; she’s “seeing someone else”. Alas, she’s exactly Bobby’s kind of gal: smart, unimpressed by the vulgar showiness of Holllywood, fabulously beautiful and fun to be with. The problem is, her “someone else” is her said boss, Uncle Phil.
She loves Phil, but still manages to fall in love with Bobby.
Complications ensue (natch).
The complications drive Bobby back to New York, back away from the false and superficial world of schmoozing and Hollywood to the false and superficial world of schmoozing and his gangster brother’s night-club. Both worlds exist in their own alien universes. These are worlds of wealth, beauty, haute couture, idle chatter, smart repartee, gossip, insider trading, gangsters and an ever-flowing stream of golden champagne. Here the only currency is the caliber of your contact list. Nothing else matters in these intersecting orbits of like-minded, nocturnal souls. Bobby, all grown up has become just another version of Phil.
The war, bubbling up somewhere far away in Europe barely merits a mention.
This is the universe of the café society; an artificial place far, far away from the real world of the Bronx, of grubby tenement apartments, badly fitting clothes and Yiddish. It is a world where the only – fleeting and genuine – escape comes from the honesty of love. Both Bobby and Vonnie marry –others- ‘happily’ (Bobby’s wife is not coincidentally also called Vonnie, or Victoria). But as they discover when they’re thrown together briefly once again in New York, theirs was a connection – a moment of something genuine in their worlds of artifice – they once had and now have forever lost.
It’s a tale of love won and lost and the melancholia of its lingering memory.
Café Society is a charming, lovely and slight movie that plays like a sort of Woody Allen greatest hits (not a bad thing) – the period settings lovingly shot (medium close-up) by Vittorio Storaro with Suzie Benziger’s sparkling costume designs. All his top tropes are here: the clarinets in the background, the angst about Jewishness, the gauche, nebbish protagonist who is irresistible to the prettiest dames on the block, the occasional lapses into philosophical musings and a well plotted story line that always veers away from cliché even when it seems to highlight it.
But this is no Blue Jasmine, with its thoughtful characterizations and compelling insights. Fortunately, it’s also no To Rome With Love either.
Jesse Eisenberg seems to have quickly become a type; his character is an imitation of Woody’s characters…with all their nervous tics and hesitations (so much so that we never quite believe in his so called pushiness or, really, his ability to run a gangster-controlled night-club). Blake Lively has a brief cameo role as Bobby’s wife. It isn’t much of a part, but she looks spot on: she shines as an embodiment of golden, bedazzling old time Hollywood star power.
Steve Carell (who replaced Bruce Willis…who couldn’t remember his lines) manages great restraint in what could easily have been a caricature of the pushy Hollywood big shot type. But it is Kristen Stewart (again) who gives us a real person. She allows us to always glimpse two people vying for supremacy: the striving name dropping small town girl who landed the big fish and the sad, needy person so ripe for the pickin’
As with anything Woody, there’s always much to discuss; more than this, even in such ephemeral fare as this, he’s worthwhile company… delivers a mood and an aura that’s a fabulous way to spend a few passing hours.
Café Society. Written and directed: Woody Allen. With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively. Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro. Production Designer: Santo Loquasto