Woody Allen is still making movies at nearly 80. Is that a good thing? Some directors make important films in their last decades. Ken Loach (the same age as Woody) has just won the Palme d’Or for an angry cry out against austerity and neo-liberalism, but Woody seems to just keep going without any real purpose except to just keep going. I’m making this judgement based on reviews I’ve read since I’d only seen one of his films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2009, in the last twenty years before I caught his new film as a holiday treat. Despite a strong cast I thought that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was deeply flawed. Café Society has a similarly strong cast, but it is at least an enjoyable entertainment.
Opening Cannes this year, Café Society went straight into a French release. It offers us Jesse Eisenberg in a familiar role not dissimilar to the twin roles he played in The Double by Richard Ayoade. His character Bobby Hoffman begins as a shy, socially inept young man from the Bronx thrown into Hollywood society in the late 1930s and working for his uncle (Steve Carell) an important agent/wheeler-dealer. Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) his uncle’s secretary, falling in love and unwittingly creating a family problem as well as learning a whole range of new skills. Transformed by his Hollywood experience Bobby returns to New York and becomes a successful house manager at the night club owned by his gangster brother. Having been forced to leave Vonnie in Hollywood, the plot sets up the possibility of a later meeting in New York. But now Bobby is also able to woo other women in New York.
Allen riffs on two distinct genres that he has ‘played’ before. A musical analogy is not inappropriate since the setting is the period of Woody Allen’s early childhood and he fills the soundtrack with sublime music (matching the equally sublime cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) mainly performed by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. A New York Jewish family comedy-drama is melded with a romantic drama. Bobby also has an older sister married to a socialist ‘intellectual’. His mother is the driving force in the family with Ken Stott a surprising but pretty effective father in the background. The setting also brings to mind Some Like it Hot – and perhaps the Viennese comedies that Wilder himself was riffing on. Because of the gangster angle we get some very dark comedy moments but mostly Allen seems to be reworking material he’s done before. My interest in the film was mainly the chance to see the further development of Kristen Stewart as a compelling performer. I thought she was the standout in a very good cast. She manages to make believable a character who wears an alice band, white socks and short 1930s dresses but who is also clearly bright (a literature Masters) and more than capable of negotiating the twists and turns of Hollywood insider life. I suspect that in choosing a Barbara Stanwyck clip to set up Vonnie as a ‘player’, Woody Allen was going with Stewart’s own preference.
This was a pleasant way to pass 96 minutes. The story was interesting enough to engage us, the performances were all good and the technical credits were excellent. Woody Allen himself did the voiceover narration – which I know many people don’t like, but it worked perfectly for me. It was worthwhile Woody. As long as actors (young and old) want to work with you, there is still a market for films like this.
Here’s the French VOSF trailer: