This is classic Woody Allen with the sharp dialog, serendipitous meetings, and an account of human attractions and their quixotic twists and turns. Allen is so good at setting up human dilemmas in a way that is fanciful but still realistic to everyday life. A woman has to choose between two very different men; she makes her choice, but her path, directed by another, continues to connect with the road she did not take. In this, Allen pits romantic love (which may or may not be lasting) against a stable relationship. Who’s to say which is better? I think he tosses that dilemma out to us in this case to decide for ourselves.
We have the Hollywood mogul Phil Stern (Carell) surrounded by Hollywood glitterati of the time (the ‘30’s). He’s so caught up in the glamour, he has trouble remembering his nephew Bobby (Eisenberg) who has come from Brooklyn to ask him for a job. He’s basically a good guy, so tries to help Bobby find a place in his organization. He also asks one of his assistants, Vonnie (Stewart), to show Bobby around Hollywood. The two hit it off; he’s smitten right away, but she lets him know that she is already seeing someone. That person seems to be out of town a lot, so Vonnie and Bobby spend lots of time together.
Allen is clever in weaving together complexities in relationships, and this is an example of how his stories can be aching and comical at the same time. In the midst of it, he illustrates how the rumor mill works and how impossible it is to keep something secret (taking examples from his personal life, no doubt). An additional twist to this drama is Bobby’s life back home in New York. He has an older brother (Stott) whom he adores, and is seemingly unaware of Ben’s shady business deals. When things go south for Bobby, he decides to move back to New York and join Ben in opening a night club, which seems to be good for Bobby in maturing and becoming a successful businessman.
Allen invariably puts his own persona into his films, and Bobby plays that role here in his Jewish background, family, values, and neuroticisms. Eisenberg pulls it off beautifully, maintaining Bobby’s appeal without going over the top into obnoxiousness or being insufferable—as sometimes happens with these roles. Carell is proving time and again that he is a gifted actor, able to blend into serious roles as well as comedy, which he was originally known for. Stewart won awards for her performance in Clouds of Sils Maria, and she shows the same level of talent here as a woman caught in a major dilemma.
As a musician as well as a director, Woody selected the jazz numbers playing throughout this film, which heightened whatever mood he was going for and increased the enjoyment of the picture. Vittorio Storaro’s stunning cinematography has the same effect by using angles and colors to intensify the depth of the viewer’s experience. This is a visually beautiful picture showing mostly the elite in Hollywood and New York, but with references to the seamier side of life in both places.
I think Woody Allen lives up to his reputation in Café Society as a gifted filmmaker who does much of the work himself. The dialog he writes is always crisp and full of tragic-comic witticisms, e.g., a man bleeding on the sidewalk from “cranial ventilation.” He is also the narrator in this film, which gives it an added touch of interest.
Gifted filmmaker Woody Allen scores again.