Café Society (2016) | Directed by Woody Allen | Drama/Romance | PG-13 | With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey | Amazon Studios/Lionsgate | Box Office: $20.6 million | Rotten Tomatoes score: 73%
My first ever movie watched at the Princeton Garden Theatre was Magic in the Moonlight, in 2014. I had never mentally attached the name Woody Allen to any other movies before, and by that merit, the movie holds an unashamedly special place in my heart.
Two years and a couple more encounters with Woody Allen later, I sat down in the theater again to watch Café Society, and it struck many of the same notes. But while the film’s casual charm and effortless romanticism was well-received by me, plenty of others cited the same qualities when labelling it as formulaic.
They’re not exactly wrong. In terms of familiarity, of the last three Woody Allen films, Café Society has got to be the worst perpetrator (it also happens to be the most pleasant). The setup, involving a nervous but intelligent male lead pursuing, butting heads over, and eventually discovering new meanings surrounding a love interest, is well-trodden ground. The journey takes the protagonist Bobby across the country and back, from Hollywood to New York nightclubs, gaining profound maturity in the process.
Of course, when I say familiar, I mean familiar by Woody Allen standards. Even if you shake your head at the limitations of his life-examinations, and accuse him of filmmaker’s conformity, most will agree, if not already assume, that he’s got his hardware up and running pretty smoothly in all of his films. My experience from watching his movies is that people hold him to a different standard–the one that measures the degree to which he effectively summons existential observations. But I think in this one, mood may be the better measurement to go by.
Like in Annie Hall (1977), Allen juxtaposes life on the west coast with the existences of those in New York City in his new creation. The steel fence-blacks and brick-reds in Café Society’s New York appear stark compared to the golden saturation and sun-drenched palm leaves of Beverly Hills that almost make it seem like an impressionistic black-and-white film (although the degree of contrast is lessened by Allen’s apparent wish to create a humorously idealized version of Jazz Age NYC, gangsters and all).
Only this time, there is no aim to insult or tease or detract (no mellow California hippies sporting offensive fashion statements here), but rather, to invoke a spell of appreciative, if wistful, thought. It’s the idea that we have to move on in life, and sometimes go separate ways, no matter how much you desire to stay, that defines the film.
Frankly, that’s the sense that Jesse Eisenberg’s protagonist conveys. The role itself makes Café Society stand out among its counterparts. Unlike the stereotypical Woody Allen lead, Bobby isn’t comparatively neurotic or high-strung (comparatively, because he does still get anxious enough to turn down sex after ordering it in one scenario), and doesn’t have the iconic injection of angst into his stream of consciousness. He sets off eagerly to learn, (says his lover, “That’s one of your greatest qualities. You’re very naive.”) and doesn’t become instantly cynical or depressed after more truths sink in. Instead, he accepts them, and treats loneliness from greater knowledge as an extra burden that he must bear.
His female counterpart, played by Kristen Stewart (who by the way, delivers a ravishing performance, prompting a Film Comment feature dubbed “The Age of Kristen Stewart”), is just as calm. Having figured out (or thinking that she’s figured out) things pretty clearly, she goes through life as a casual, rational being who doesn’t stress over the uncontrollable. She’s definitely not Mary from Manhattan (1979).
In fact, the cast is full of emotional mastery and rational behavior. All the lead characters are incredibly stable and understanding, and decent when it comes to coping with tension. There are barely any extremes involved throughout. The film’s major conflict and climax happens roughly halfway through, and the rest is just the fallout of it in life afterwards.
All of which I think goes back to what I mentioned earlier about mood, and contributes to the conversation about what life ultimately boils down to. By having the main characters all accept others as well as their own eventual fates, it’s easier to convey the notion that life is full of disappointments, that human nature is inherently dissatisfactory, and that you have to pick out the good moments from a pool of malaise. Each character, no matter how long we get to interact with them, is provocatively interesting, but the film gets us to feel poignant about the brevity of their existences.
Which seems like a sad thought, but Allen expertly sets the tone for the story to play out as a quaint, if not ideal, love story that lets us share in the wisdom and bitterness of each characters’ discoveries in life.
Café Society isn’t really a film to debate about and quote along with the work of philosophers, but rather something to think about and let simmer during your morning commute to work. Like a sunny day, or an old framed photograph, you tend to eventually only remember the better parts of the memory attached to it. There’s still the obligatory idiosyncratic references, for instance to the Jewish belief and extramarital romances, kind of like one of those Stan Lee cameos, only done in a non-jarring way. But it’s classic Allen minus the dry wit, and added a little quiet melancholy.
Formulaic or not, I still have yet to find a Woody Allen film that I haven’t really enjoyed.