CAFE SOCIETY (8 out of 10) Written and Directed by Woody Allen; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll; Rated PG-13 for “some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking;” Running time 96 minutes; In wide release July 29, 2016.
Even at 80 years old, Woody Allen is a workhorse of cinema, capable of delivering a film every year for almost the last fifty. This week saw the release of his latest, “Cafe Society,” starring Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, and Steve Carell and the film manages to cut to the heart of wistful existentialism in a way that is wonderful, enlightening, and surprising.
Somehow, Allen has been able to remain a constant stenographer of the longing inherent in the human condition and this latest effort is no exception.
The film follows Bobby Dorfman, the Woody Allen stand-in played capably by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a New York kid who needs a change of pace and finds himself in Hollywood working for his powerful agent of an uncle played by Steve Carell. While there, he falls in love with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart.) Things get more complicated when it turns out Vonnie is also seeing her boss on the side.
One of the things I love so much about Woody Allen films like this is that he’s going to the well of classic cinema that I love so much and we don’t see enough of in the movie theaters these days. The first half of the film plays out like a more anxious version of Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” but then transitions into moments of “Casablanca” and “Vertigo,” all avowed favorites of Woody Allen. The shattered compact of Ms. Kubelik is transformed here into a bit of memorabilia, a love letter written in the hand of Rudolph Valentino. The film brings to bear the feeling of unfulfilled romance, watching it, you can’t help but feel like you’re falling in love all over again and rooting for the relationships to work. For her part, Kristen Stewart is excellent at this, and Eisenberg is brilliantly naive.
Later in the film, a spurned Eisenberg turns into Rick from “Casablanca,” running a nightclub to distract from his heartache. Of course, there’s that scene where the girl walks into the bar and his heart and ours catches in our throats and lovesickness takes back over. At first, I thought it was a problem having Eisenberg do this. He’s not capable of the rocky stoicism Bogart brings to the table, Eisenberg’s range is firmly in the Woody Allen category, at least here. But as the movie progressed, I realized that this is all of us. When our hearts break, we all put on that white suit and drown ourselves running saloons of all types. Some of us wear that suit better than others. For Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman, it really is just a bit of camouflage to hide his forlorn nature and it works perfectly.
The film tackles head on the complication and difficulty of relationships and human experience, of its meaninglessness, but also its beauty.
Although I’ve described the film as a forlorn romp through the psyche of lovers in the 1930s, make no mistake. This film is funny. Few are as adept as Woody Allen in constructing jokes on such a consistent pace. If you’re on the same wavelength as Woody Allen (and, admittedly, his comedy can be seen as a fine, acquired taste, like scotch or cigars) then you’re going to find plenty of belly laughs here.
Technically, this might be Woody Allen’s best-looking film. The rich and golden hues of California and Hollywood and the warm realism of New York stand out. The images are crisp and sharp. Although Allen claims his method of moving the camera stems from laziness, there was no shortage of elegant scene staging and fascinating camera moves across the course of the film.
The film might best be summed up in the words of Bobby Dorfman’s brother in law, late in the film: “Socrates said the unexamined life isn’t worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.” Those words echoed in my head as I left the theater, and the feeling of long forgotten kisses from long forgotten lovers weighed heavily on my lips.
That’s what I love about Woody Allen movies. They teach you about yourself, about the world, about life and love. Going to one of his movies is like going to a supremely entertaining class about life.
And really, what more could you ask for as you leave the movie theater?