As one character remarks in Woody Allen’s newest film, “Live everyday as if it’s your last, because one day it will be.” It’s one of those signature Woody quips that’s as brutally honest as it’s brutally funny. But it also feels like a mantra for the 80-year-old director, who keeps churning out one film after the other.
Perhaps that’s why in Café Society, the death-obsessed Allen turns his sights on 1930s Hollywood, remembering an era before he was sentient (Allen was born in 1935). It’s a period for which he’s long held a fascination, and the perfect fairytale setting for yet another disillusioned love story.
In Café Society, a young, nervous mensch from New York, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), meets the love of his life, the jaded, beautiful Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), after moving to Hollywood to find fame and fortune. His well-connected talent manager uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), gets him his first job, and sets Bobby up with Vonnie to see the sights.
Phil doesn’t expect them to fall in love, however, and Vonnie eventually must choose between her older, more successful boyfriend (whose identity she keeps secret, though the twist is hardly surprising for an Allen film) and Bobby, who believes they can lead a happier, more down-to-earth life back home in Greenwich Village. When Vonnie breaks up with Bobby, he returns home broken-hearted, and devotes his energy into managing a glitzy nightclub started by his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who also happens to be a gangster.
The film is Allen’s first to be shot on digital, and in terms of visual splendour it’s absolutely teeming, one of the director’s finest looking films, thanks in part to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Old Hollywood has never looked as enchanting as it does in Café Society thanks to the frequent use of bucolic settings: expansive, rich-house backyards and intimate, romantic bars and clubs. Allen showcases a nostalgic glamour that matches Bobby’s impressionable encounter with the big city and the director’s own fantasy of what it would have looked like.
The L.A.-versus-New York binary in Café Society isn’t a lifestyle choice to be discussed at length among characters as in other Allen films, as much as it is a simple plot point. Though in typical form, Allen associates city with character: L.A. belongs to sharks like Phil, while N.Y., home to a variety of Jewish family caricatures — another common thread in Allen’s film — offers room to establish a unique identity.
But what does Café Society teach us about our protagonist? What kind of man does he become? Bobby is neither worth championing (even as he becomes successful as a club manager, we’re never privy to how he gets there), nor a sympathetic character (an unfortunate early scene with a sex worker sets that impression in stone).
Allen, it seems, is so entranced by the romantic leads’ youthful disillusionment that he forgets to make Bobby or Vonnie real people. And despite the tremendous efforts of Eisenberg and Stewart — the former turns the archetypical Woody nebbish character into something of his own, while the latter perfects the physical embodiment of her brooding inertia — it’s impossible to feel anything for these characters.
Café Society may enchant the viewer with its lush visuals and close-ups of Stewart’s smouldering expressions, and it may prove sufficiently entertaining, with its witty references to Hollywood’s sleazy business politics (as well as the small-life chagrins faced by Bobby’s Jewish family and the short digressions into Ben’s cartoonish gangster villainy), but these are all distractions from the real love story at the heart of the film. In the end, Café Society feels like a dream — a quality that Allen may have been deliberately evoking — but when it’s over, you won’t remember too much.