Picked up by Amazon Studios following its world premiere at Cannes, Woody Allen’s new comedy Café Society is a polished, amber-coloured sonnet to the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a young New Yorker who tired of his father’s jewellery business goes West to find his fortune by the moon shaped pales and beneath the tall palms of the Hollywood hills. Bobby’s uncle Phil (a brilliant if underused Steve Carell) is a top agent who can’t get through a cocktail without closing three deals and setting up a brunch with a film producer.
After giving him the runaround, Phil finally relents and hires Bobby as his gopher, and Bobby begins to explore the town with Phil’s secretary, the beautiful Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Together they visit the homes of the stars and eat at cheap Mexican restaurants. A tentative romance is in the offing as Bobby does his best to insinuate himself in the world of glamorous movie stars. However, Bobby doesn’t real have a clear vision of what he wants to do. He isn’t a Barton Fink trying to write art, beating with his fists against the system, but rather he just wants a break from New York. As such he doesn’t feel particularly invested in Hollywood and this mirrors Allen’s own ambiguous relationship to Hollywood.
Unlike the Coen brothers’ recent Hail, Caesar!, there is no real sense of a relationship with that era, gratitude for the films or a sense of the frenetic rhythms of the period. Allen’s nostalgia is limited to the foyers of the cinemas and the movie star homes. The lifestyle is considered vacuous although we never really see any vacuity and Café Society swiftly relocates – following a painful ménage-a-trois – back to New York where it finds firmer footing with Bobby’s mother and father, communist brother-in-law and gangster brother Benny (Corey Stoll), who sets his younger brother up in the nightclub business. Woody Allen’s recent output is often as slick and tightly played as the traditional jazz soundtracks that trundle lightly in the background, but equally they are beginning to resemble cinematic muzak, pleasant, upbeat and slightly sad at the same time but ultimately forgettable.
Eisenberg avoids, for the most part, doing a Woody Allen impersonation, but his bumbling guilelessness is wearing and Stewart seems out of place, unable to ever quite get over being Kristen Stewart in a Woody Allen movie. In fact, both young leads seem nervous to have been invited and often appear simply pleased to be there. Café Society’s photography by veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storace is handsome, although occasionally the gilded age is represented a little too literally, as the golds and ochres signal the nostalgia and drown the scene. This being Allen there are some cracking lines and exchanges, but very few that will raise more than an affectionate smile.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty