Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in 'Café Society'Mars Films

Café Society is the latest addition to Woody Allen's extensive oeuvre. It follows the young and neurotic Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he muddles his way through glamorous 1930s Hollywood and back in New York as he finds success as the host of a suave New York jazz club. The film's apogee however, is a mellow high rather than an exhilarating thrill: despite its glamorous setting, the film is less the tingle of a mint julep in a swinging thirties club, and more the reliable contentment of a warm cup of tea and a digestive.

With echoes of his mid-1970s golden age, it ‘fizzes like vintage Woody Allen’ as the poster claims – which, to me, begs the question of whether this is perhaps Mr Allen’s cinematic swansong. We witness the return of the New York comedy, the neurotic leading male, the archetypal Jewish family – all staple ingredients of a Woody Allen classic. Allen’s absence from the screen is mildly concerning: having written himself into the lead role of almost every one of his films for the last fifty years, one can assume that, if he was willing and able, he would have persisted in remaining centre stage.

The narrative is a tip of the hat to Shakespeare, with the case of mistaken identity, complex love triangle, and augmented dependence on the discovery of a letter (although from Rudolph Valentino rather than Friar Lawrence). It’s frequent tangents and shoe-horned quips are slightly disjointed: the apprehensive prostitute, the mob ring brother, the naïve confidante, are amusing but disorganised. Even that the two female leads are both called ‘Vonny’ – let’s call them Kronny (Kristen Stewart) and Blonny (Blake Lively) – stinks of a narrative trick with more wit than content. One can picture Woody Allen flicking through his commonplace book, containing all the gag ideas he's amassed over the years, and deciding that all presently unused were to be stitched together and called Café Society.

The fact that all of the characters are like stock narrative devices is forgivable when considered they are from the Woody Allen storeroom of ideas. The most vibrant characters - the fleeting radiance of Lively excluded- are Bobby Dorfman’s parents, full of wry banter and classic Jewish comedy. Perhaps Allen, in his twilight years, has forgotten how to write ‘young’ in favour of more mature characters.

Jesse Eisenberg’s charming performance is a treat. If his role was to do an impression of Woody Allen’s archetypal neurotic protagonist, then he did his job well: however, the film would surely have benefitted from allowing Eisenberg to flex his own rapidly-growing distinctive artistic muscles. Forcing Eisenberg into Allen’s mould was not quite a square peg in a round hole; instead, it merely provided a constant reminder of Allen’s presence in his absence, much as making Joey Essex do theoretical physics would only serve to remind you that he’s not Albert Einstein.

Café Society is missing the distinctive female lead of Allen’s most successful works: Stewart pales in comparison to Diane Keaton, and Lively, by nature as by name, hardly has enough screen time to shine.  Stewart’s performance is characteristically lethargic, although her inexpressive face seems well suited to the part of a character who symbolises the inauthentic façade of a person.

It is a brave move to make a movie in which every character is unlikeable. Steve Carell’s smarmy Phil Stern is insipid; Vonnie has all the misogyny of the manic pixie dream girl without Keaton’s delightfulness. There is a glimmer of narrative redemption when Bobby begins to realise his mistake: she is not a summer breeze but an embodiment of the empty Hollywood hopes and dreams which they share at the beginning of the movie. However, Bobby has also become a shallow caricature of his charming, nervous self. He is brazen, full of schmoose, and maybe even an implied racist, seeing as, despite running a Jazz club in the 1930s, its customers are as white as the ties.

It’s a far cry from Allen’s early dialogue-driven work, which reflected his previous dabbling in playwriting. With its stylised palette, beautiful costumes and spirited soundtrack, this dissection of Hollywood is cinema through and through. The film suffers with the absence of Allen’s charismatic acting: his slightly shaky voiceover is a reminder that it has been almost 40 years since the release of the comedic masterpiece Annie Hall. Overall the film is a scrappy patchwork – gum picked off from underneath the sticky table of a ripe New York jazz club. Still, having come from Allen’s mouth, an unmistakeable remnant of its original delicious flavour happily remains.

Sponsored links

Partner links