Perhaps the most prolific director of all (45 features thus far), Woody Allen is a frustrating filmmaker in that the quality of his output fluctuates wildly; from the delightful to the dire. To be fair, most of his recent output has been pretty decent (Blue Jasmine, Midnight in Paris), but there is always a sense of trepidation whenever a new Allen film arrives in cinemas because, whilst there is a great deal of predictability in the types of characters that inhabit the stories, you just never know whether Allen is going to deliver something great or god awful. In fact, within each individual movie there are often great disparities in the quality of what plays out, with wonderful moments of wry wit often followed by something so insipid that it only serves to undermine those moments that soar. With Café Society, Allen sticks to this template, creating a (s)light 1930’s-set romantic comedy in which a young man relocates from New York to Los Angeles in search of opportunity, only to find himself smitten by his uncle’s secretary.
The central character is, seemingly, yet another incarnation of Allen himself, with Jesse Eisenberg perfectly suited to the role as the confident but uptight Bobby Dorfman. Having moved to LA to escape a future working in his father’s jewellery business, Bobby finds himself employed by his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood agent whose incessant name-dropping is a running joke though the film. When Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), romance blossoms despite the fact that she already has a boyfriend “Doug” (whose real identity we learn soon enough) and, whilst it easy to see why both men have fallen for her, you find yourself questioning the likelihood of a situation in which this beautiful, easy going young woman would find herself romantically entangled with these two men when neither of them are particularly gregarious. Of course, such dichotomies are the hallmark of all Allen films; a beautiful woman falls for the charms of somebody who would, in all reality, never stand a chance. For a long time, Allen cast himself as the man punching above his weight, but in recent years he has turned to the likes of Owen Wilson, Joaquin Phoenix and now Eisenberg to fill such roles. These characters are essentially the same each time, the only difference being the woman over whom they fawn.
In that regard, Stewart is an inspired casting decision as she is absolutely luminous here. Often maligned as an actress, Stewart has proven time and again that she is a terrific talent and it is her presence alone that keeps you interested. Sure, you can’t help but ask yourself why Vonnie is involved with either of her suitors, but it is easy to understand why they would be pursuing her because whenever Stewart is on screen, Café Society soars. Sure, there are some aspects of the film that are infuriating (such as the voice-over narration from Allen himself) but Stewart’s performance and her easy rapport with Eisenberg (with whom she has worked twice before) helps to alleviate the anger that builds every time Allen’s voice launches into another infuriatingly unnecessary commentary on the course of events. When the romance between Bobby and Vonnie seems to have run its course, Bobby returns to New York to run a nightclub owned by his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and it is here that he finds himself a new love in Veronica (Blake Lively). Of course, love never runs smoothly and when Vonnie ventures back into his periphery, complications ensue.
Whilst there are several scenes (such as those in New York that endlessly remind us about what a bad guy Ben has become) that could have easily been excised without having any impact on the main characters and their relationships, there is one superfluous scene early in the piece featuring Anna Camp (Pitch Perfect) as a hapless hooker that, despite having no relevance to anything that follows, is actually the funniest moment in the film. The rest of the movie is amusing rather than uproarious, with Parker Posey the standout amongst the supporting cast as Rad, a straight-talking socialite who runs a modelling agency. Dripping in 1930’s glamour, Café Society juxtaposes the glitzy seduction of Hollywood with the dour world of working class New York. It all looks fabulous and, with Stewart possessing a screen presence to rival any of the Golden Age actresses whose names pop up in Phil’s numerous bouts of braggadocio, this is one of Allen’s better efforts.