Woody Allen’s new film Café Society is full of characters to fall in love with: a ruthless gangster named Ben (Corey Stoll). Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a secretary who works at a Hollywood agency and likes Mexican food, meatballs, and Joan Crawford’s house. A stunning divorcée named Veronica (Blake Lively) whose financier husband has traded her in for younger stock. Evelyn, a married woman (Sari Lennick) and her too-liberal-by-half husband. A glamorous, romantic lady named Rad (Parker Posey) who runs a modeling agency. And a pair of guileless, elderly Jewish parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) who have opposing views on the afterlife. They’re all magnetic forces in the movie.
Each performance, including the best one of Lively’s career to date, is instantly stirring, like the actors have been waiting for you to sit down and just watch them work. Waiting for this moment to really shine.
But for some reason I can’t explain, Café Society isn’t really about any of these people. Even amid all this talent and all this life, the film is guiltlessly focused on its least interesting element: the shopworn tale of one Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) and his older uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell).
Bobby wants to live in Los Angeles. He dreams of working in Hollywood and falling in love. Phil is living that dream, one plush dinner, brunch, and martini at a time.
Café Society plays out as if Allen, who wrote and directed the film, is simultaneously LARPing through both men. Bobby is all optimistic and dreamy, and Phil is more jaded but drenched with financial security; they represent two ends of manhood. Gorgeous women fall in love with them, money finds its way into their pockets, and their dubious affairs go unpunished.
Allen does a good job of dressing up this dream; with Café Society, he makes it look beautiful. But the film’s looks surpass its substance. I don’t mean to imply that Café Society’s story is bad or poorly executed — it’s fine. It’s just not new or very compelling.
Café Society is dripping in elegant 1930s glamour
Much of Café Society takes place in sunny, golden 1930s Los Angeles. Phil has made a name for himself as a high-powered agent; names like Rita Hayworth and Barbara Stanwyck swirl around his mouth. Bobby, with the encouragement of his mother and discouragement of his father, has ditched the Bronx to follow his uncle out West. Bobby thinks he wants to work in Hollywood.
I can’t say I blame him.
Café Society is wrapped in the glamorous seduction of Hollywood, and it looks every bit the part. Allen clearly gave the film’s costume and art departments free rein, allowing for luxe scenes peppered with tuxedos, dinner jackets, and evening gowns. The gentlemen sport perfect slicked side parts. The women wear pin curls and finger waves.
It’s a movie you want borrow and try on.
The actors who inhabit the enchanting lives of these characters are up to the part, too. In particular, Lively’s charming Veronica is a surprise. Veronica is wounded, guarded even, and Lively imbues her with dignity. She also adds a subtle layer of sweetness and humor, allowing Veronica slips of vulnerability here and there.
Stewart’s Vonnie isn’t as outwardly charming Lively’s Veronica, but she’s equally intriguing. She’s working at Phil’s agency, and seeing Hollywood from the other side has dulled her desire to pursue her dreams as an actress. This spirit, and her ability to cut through the scrim of glamour and glitz, is what draws Bobby to her. And in parallel, Stewart’s performance briefly elevates Café Society’s story, pushing it to a better place.
Bobby believes she’s his first true love, but he’s not hers. There’s a dignity and sincerity in Stewart’s performance, one that calls for both brightness and solemnity. Her decision isn’t easy, and Stewart makes clear the weight of the choice.
Vonnie and Veronica are fascinating, beguiling creatures, to the point where you’ll imagine a more riveting life for both of them, one where this film is just an incident. They’ll make you wonder why Café Society spends so much time on a character who doesn’t deserve it.
Why Café Society is such a sentimental bore
As the film reveals more about all the moving pieces in the movie industry, you begin to realize that Bobby isn’t as interested in what he can do in Hollywood as he is in what Hollywood can do for him. What he really wants is for a beautiful woman to love him. And he views women the same way he views Hollywood — he’s isn’t as interested in what he can bring to a relationship so much as what women can do for him.
Watching an Allen movie today, knowing his personal life and the allegations he faces, prompts its own kind of hyper-awareness.
Each of Bobby’s interactions with women has a stinky, sharp feel and occasionally a singe of cruelty. One particular encounter, with a prostitute, ends with her begging Bobby for sex.
If Allen were the slightest bit aware of Bobby’s aggressive flaccidness or harshness, Café Society could very well be a smart film about the slim pickings of men in women’s lives. But it isn’t. Women like Veronica and Vonnie are treated like trophies, and there’s a burgeoning sense that if they don’t fulfill their duties as prizes, there’s another ingénue on the fringes who’s ready to get into the game.
On the rare occasion that the movie drops its insistence on rewarding Bobby (and Phil, and the rest of its men), it begins to hit at something more empathetic — the idea that love doesn’t conquer all, that life doesn’t stop so that love can keep up, that love, even the once-in-a-lifetime kind, can end quietly. It’s a wistful, compelling sentiment, one that’s wasted on the least likable character of the entire film.
Café Society is playing in selected theaters.