Let me just put it out there: I’m not a huge fan of Woody Allen. However, with Cafe Society being his biggest budget for a film yet at $30 million, I was interested to see what the director could do with more resources behind him. In the end though, Café Society is pretty much what you expect from a Woody Allen film: cumbersome and at time stuffy dialogue and lots of dull camera work. On the plus side, Allen’s skill at bringing out the strengths of his actors remains intact, even if it’s largely the result of casting than anything else.
Café Society is the story of a young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), looking to make his mark on the growing Hollywood film industry. Only problem is he has nothing going for him other than an uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) who happens to be one of the top talent agents in the business. Luckily it turns out that’s all you need in 1930’s Los Angeles and he soon finds himself mingling amongst many socialites and subsequently falling in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). The story offers up a few twists and he eventually lands up in New York and tries to start life anew, while needing to make crucial decisions on where his relationships are going.
The extra budget that Allen was given for this film is put to good use with some stellar production and costume design that really bring the period to life. Apart from a small mistake with a house early on that looks clearly out of place for the period, the film does a superb job in creating scenes on sets larger than what Allen has done in the past. Allen also took the decision to film the movie in digital, marking his first time using this style of camera. The effect is noticeable, both for better and worse and makes for a strange contrast to an old era of film that has been shot with the latest in digital technology. The scenes all come across looking sharp and detailed, but not feeling as much a part of the era as it perhaps should.
The story itself is complex, but yet simplistically told and somehow convoluted all at the same time. There is a lot of depth to the core characters and layers to work through, but at the same time Allen chooses to gloss over many aspects of building the character and instead opts for the use of narration (by himself) to set up the scenes and move the story along. While it thankfully prevents the movie from running too long, it’s a result of Allen not being able to build this background suitably into his narrative in the first place and seems a bit of a cop out from the director. Additionally despite taking this short cut approach to character development, Allen still manages to somehow stuff several unnecessary scenes and overly pretentious dialog into the script.
As mentioned earlier, the film is well cast and its leads Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg and Steve Carrell all play their parts superbly. However, this is as much down to the fact that each role is almost typecast specifically to the actor. No actor feels stretched here and they are all playing characters they’ve played before and I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen wrote the script with that in mind. It makes the performances effective, but takes some personality away from them as well
As for the love story itself, the first act plays out like it has potential, and the film even takes some turns that prevent it from dissolving into your standard romance fair. But while it certainly is to its strength that the story isn’t predictable, it’s also poorly concluded by Allen, leaving you feeling a underwhelmed in the end. I’m all for open endings in films, but this one jumps on you quite suddenly, feeling substantially under-done.
In the end, whether you will enjoy this movie will really come down to whether you like Woody Allen or not. I found this film to not deviate too much from his usual mold and so personally didn’t take a liking to it, but I know there are those Allen fans out there who will enjoy it. I’m not one of them and while I can complement the film for its many strengths, in the end I was left bored. Allen is not exactly known for building excitement through his direction and the story would’ve probably worked just as well as a stage play than a film, as the camera really doesn’t add anything extra. Perhaps Allen missed a trick by making this into a film.
Café Society is out now on DVD