Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
I found “Cafe Society” to be the most affecting Woody Allen movie of recent years. It’s a soft-shoe over and around Allen’s accustomed themes and obsessions that — miraculously — never stumbles into triteness or predictability. Allen’s hero, Bobby, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a young Jew from New York who is presented with a bevy of potential role models, none of them, as his father says, “real Jew(s).” His brother Ben is a gangster; he eventually converts to Christianity. Leonard, his brother-in-law, has already converted — to Communism. But it’s uncle Phil whose life appeals most to Bobby. Phil is a Hollywood producer, and when Bobby flies out to ask him for a job, he’s slowly seduced by the dream of the movies. It’s a dream contrived by Jews like Phil, yet it has a gentile face. To Bobby — and perhaps to Allen — it represents the advent of a new and very secular Americanism. When Bobby returns to New York, he carries with him an expectation of this new dispensation. He’s assimilated a portion of the dream.
Of course, Allen, like Bobby, is a not-so-settled mixture of East and West Coasts. And perhaps the vigorousness with which he’s so often portrayed the New York-California divide is an outgrowth of his very Jewish sense of guilt. (One senses that the New York Woody is forever rationalizing the success of his Hollywood self, even as he thanks Jehovah for it.) In “Cafe Society” Allen underscores that divide by explicitly referencing Robert Florey’s “The Woman in Red,” in which an equestrian played by Barbara Stanwyck escapes class persecution in Los Angeles — only to find something worse on Long Island.
Like “The Woman in Red,” “Cafe Society” is set in the 1930s. Its New York is the land of natural colors, tough guys, realities. Its Hollywood, by contrast, is golden-hued, fantastic, all bullshit. Though Allen and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro admirably bring out the disparities inherent in these locales, I suspect the picture rarely looks as lovely as they intend. (This is the first time either has worked in the digital format.) The California scenes in particular are given an orange-sherbet veneer that looks — at least on my TV — more smeary than limpid. Yet this doesn’t prevent Allen from evoking the wooziness that affects Bobby as he tours the homes of the stars and mingles with the elite of the movie colony (the “society” of the title). The feeling first takes hold upon his introduction to Vonnie, Phil’s shiksa secretary, and it dissipates only when she leaves him for the boss — who is, of course, also the uncle. All the same, Bobby’s longing for Vonnie stays with him; it’s part of that dream he carries with him back east.
In New York Bobby finds his niche, capably managing a nightclub that’s like a smudge of California brightness daubed into the gray of Manhattan. (It’s a Hollywood studio in miniature.) He marries a shiksa, too, though he can’t forget she’s not Vonnie. He especially can’t forget it when Vonnie herself visits his club with Phil, to whom she’s now married. Here Allen succumbs to the fatalistic romanticism of “Casablanca,” though his handling of it is so easy — like the mellow playing of the jazzmen who work Bobby’s club — that he’s able to make Bobby’s transcendence of his romantic fate feel like a piece of wish fulfillment.
Unlike Rick Blaine, Bobby doesn’t surrender to gloom. Even so, he’ll never fully relinquish his Hollywood reverie. In this sense he’s like Cecilia in Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” — a dreamer who’s lost a piece of himself to a dream. As Allen shows us in the picture’s final moment, in which an image of Vonnie in California dissolves into one of Bobby in New York (it’s an exceptionally lovely ending), the two remain connected by a yearning — for youth, for possibilities, for each other — that defeats space, cynicism, and maturity.
If this schema sounds too pat, it’s because it is. I suspect the pleasure of the movie is in the way it overrides your better judgement by making a sort of style out of its hazy mix of half-formed rhythms, feelings, and ideas. It’s a movie your emotional self may rush to defend even as your rational self swan dives through its holes.
Perhaps it works because it’s so of a piece with Bobby and Vonnie — so sweetly guileless and unresolved that you can’t help loving it a little. Eisenberg’s performance is appealingly open; so open, in fact, that you may forget the angst that’s characterized the actor’s recent work. But it’s Kristen Stewart as Vonnie who embodies the movie’s inchoate expressiveness. What is the source of Stewart’s peculiar charm? There’s a reflexive awareness to all of her work that can read on the screen as fumbling authenticity. She’s so sensitive, and her reactions so unusual, that it often seems that what she’s communicating is coming through in spite of her best defenses — that she can’t help it coming through. As written Vonnie isn’t much of a character. Stewart makes you understand what Bobby sees in her.
- “Cafe Society” is now available to Prime subscribers via Amazon’s streaming service.