Woody Allen is at his best when he identifies a universal truth of love. In Annie Hall, it was the inevitability of separation. In Midnight in Paris, it was the desperate, idealistic longing for a time that never was. It’s because of this that Café Society never quite stumbles despite its meandering, clumsily delivered story. Cut through the fat and you’ll find that Allen’s latest captures aching reality.
Jesse Eisenberg finds his niche as Allen’s stand-in. He portrays an ambitious if naïve Jewish kid from the Bronx named Bobby. He’s ventured out to California with star-studded aspirations and navigates LA with an awkward charm. I’m normally not much for Eisenberg’s brand of quirk but it’s hard to deny his chemistry with the Allen paradigm.
In a particularly wonderful scene early in the film, after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career, Bobby seesaws on whether or not to have sex with a prostitute. The moment spins out of control as he inevitably asks the young woman about her life. Upon learning she’s new to the industry (and Jewish to boot), he can’t bring himself to go through with it. It’s the perfect clash of pleasure, humor and guilt that so aptly and absurdly characterizes the American Jewish experience.
Lucky for Bobby (and Eisenberg), Allen’s world is one of wish fulfillment, where not one but two beautiful women seek the attention of a nebbish kid with a penchant for sarcasm. At first, Bobby’s attention is focused squarely on his uncle’s (Steve Carell) secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). He allows his affection to grow to the point of infatuation and despite herself, she falls for him.
But time passes and their paths diverge. Bobby heads back to New York, finds a new partner in Veronica (Blake Lively) and woos her with smooth jazz and a deprecating sense of wit. Everything comes to a standstill one day years later when Vonnie walks in the front door of his club. The effect is immediately apparent on Eisenberg’s face: disbelief, pain and eventually, a hint of joy. And beneath Stewart’s aloof demeanor, the feeling is evidently mutual.
That’s all there is to Café Society. It’s exhausting to see Allen pad this simple, short film-appropriate premise with his usual nihilistic complaints about religion and narrative tangents. He spends much of the film cutting away to Bobby’s family for no apparent purpose. Corey Stoll is typically great as Bobby’s gangster older brother, but a strange subplot about his criminal dealings catching up with him and the crisis of faith that ensues bears no relevance or support to central tale of love lost.
Worse, the writer/director immediately sets off on the wrong foot with a hackneyed voiceover. Allen’s never been a cinematographic storyteller to any significant degree, though his films can be aesthetically pleasing. Yet so much of this movie is communicated through body language that his redundant droning feels entirely unnecessary.
These are fine actors who use emotion and angst to elevate their characters beyond words on a page. Allen’s narrator only appears sporadically, but he explains every emotional build and narrative development as if the audience were too dense to understand it otherwise. It feels cheap and undercuts everyone, particularly Stewart and Eisenberg as they attempt to convey deep melancholy.
It’s a shame. While Lively isn’t given much to do, Stewart and Eisenberg have an undeniable chemistry that keeps keeps the shaky narrative together. Stewart also shines in her own right. She bounces from empty-headed bourgeoisie to wickedly perceptive and grounded with shocking ease. As the men in her life condescend her (Carell’s Phil dismisses her Master’s degree and hires her as a secretary), she reveals her intelligence by adeptly navigating high society.
It was just a day before I sat down in the theater to watch Café Society that my own ex walked back into my life. We’d split on good terms as relationships go, each finding our own paths and other romantic interests in the process. But she wasn’t just “an ex”—she was, at least at that point, “the ex.”
As old flames go, she still burned. Seeing her again in my new home in East London was a flood of emotion I hadn’t felt in some time. Yet I’d moved on to whatever degree that’s possible, she was spoken for and we contented ourselves to a peaceful night in my neighborhood.
So maybe I give Café Society most of its credit for capturing something real. It’s a sloppy, lazy effort but that doesn’t make it any less salient. Sure, East London isn’t quite New York in the 1930s—and I’m no Jesse Eisenberg. But I heard the jazz that night, and felt the ache anyway.
Verdict: Movie Meh