Café Society, 2016.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin.
In the 1930s, a young Bronx native moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary of his powerful uncle, an agent to the stars. After returning to New York, he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.
Woody Allen is the true great American storyteller. You can criticise and belittle his work all you want, but ultimately he is the single auteur still at work today who is wholly reminiscent of the art’s foundations: originality, creativity and passion. Locate another filmmaker who has written and directed more singular titles (meaning no adaptations, remakes or reboots) than he. You would have to go back as far as the Silent Era.
Now whilst Café Society spawns life just after such a period, rather when the ‘Talkies’ were beginning to populate theatres, it serves as perhaps the most potent and poetic reflection of the great man himself: timeless and soulful. The film details a landmark occasion too as it is the first Allen to lack production from Jack Rollins since 1969. Passing away aged 100 in 2015, his memory is gorgeously preserved and honoured here.
Eisenberg plays young Bobby; a perky but unfulfilled man from The Bronx who switches landscapes and starts anew amongst the sizzlingly Hollywood sun and stars. His neglectful, overworked uncle Phil (Carell) serves as a top-tier studio producer who spends his days chasing the tails of Ginger Rogers and Judy Garland. Wide-eyed at such a dramatic scene-shift, he is shown the roads and the ropes by Vonnie (Stewart); Phil’s dizzyingly beautiful and disarming assistant, who enchants and infatuates, but also bares a sordid secret.
After the appeal of glitz and glamour begins to fade, Bobby wipes away the façade and makes his way into Manhattan’s high society, partnering up with his crooked brother Ben (Stoll) and setting Downtown alight with their fanciful new nightclub. Working the night and the clientele with equal attentiveness and style, he makes a profound affect on Veronica (Lively); a ravishing young divorcee who too causes his eyes to twinkle.
Bridging two coastal stories with breezy narration from Allen himself, Café Society profiles contrasts like a blossoming romance and a budding crime syndicate with such dexterity that it’ll take the breath away. And whilst the film tackles surprising tones including murder, adultery, extortion and discrimination, such beats are captured through a satirical rose-tinted lens.
Visually this is a luxurious fever-dream. Vibrant and intoxicating in equal measure, audiences will swoon as they navigate the heady dreamscapes of Los Angeles and New York. Immaculately photographed by Vittorio Stotaro and palpably textured by Allen, the picture is alive with compelling colour: from crystal-clear blues to rustic, warming sepias. It is a deeply satisfying showcase of filmic prowess, and is arguably the director’s most artistically accomplished since Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
As you’d likely expect, the characterisation on offer here is utterly majestic, and the collective prose for the striking ensemble is immaculate. Bouncing and fizzing with belly laughs one minute, only to be replaced by earthy emotion and poignancy the next. Allen is balancing a finite beam here, but he does so with tremendous prowess. So much so that it seems entirely effortless.
Eisenberg delivers a work of vaudevillian mastery: eloquently commanding as he ring-leads. A dramatic side-step from more familiar territories for the young actor, this is a performance that truly exercises his expansive repertoire and will be fondly recalled for years to come. Carell and Stoll are also both fantastic, offering comically brash and brazen approaches to two very different, but intrinsically bound characters.
Lively continues to prove herself as a fine talent also, and Allen offers her a role with more depth and emotional clarity than she regularly receives. After greatly impressing in survival horror The Shallows earlier this summer, it is clear that she is broadening into more rewarding territories, and long may such exploration continue. However the undoubted star shining brightest in this dream factory is Stewart. Again solidifying her dominance as perhaps the most exciting young actress at work in the United States today, her Vonnie is a potent, nuanced treat for all to enjoy. Her chemistry with Eisenberg is frothy and infectious, but in the sobering quieter moments is where she truly thrives. Armed with deft expressionism, Stewart steals the show.
With Café Society, Allen is working perfectly on all creative cylinders. He has delivered a picture that is quintessentially his, but also a product of fantastic potential. Even at 80, he is still searching for new ways to tell tales, and that is something that should be celebrated, not repressed. With a limitless understanding of film language, film dialogue and film heritage, Allen has curated a slice of unequivocal, unmatchable genius.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★