Welcoming moviegoers into an impeccably designed world encompassing pre-war Hollywood and the late Depression-era Bronx, Woody Allen's latest seeks to entertain. Does it do its job? and where will Café Society sit within the wildly variable 21st century oeuvre of its director?
Jesse Eisenberg nails the Allen avatar as socially awkward Bronx boy Bobby, sent to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), representative to the stars in 30s LA. And if it's a change of scene he wanted, he's greeted with not only starlet-graced parties and opulent mansions, but also the super-saturated amber glow given by DP Vittorio Storaro to distinguish it from a cooler New York. He's soon pursuing the affections of secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), getting caught in a love triangle while attempting to ascend the ladder.
The casting is inspired, my pick of the supporting roles being a hangdog Ken Stott as Bobby's father. Stewart's performance invites the viewer into its micro-expressions, Carell shows once again how to combine a divided inner world with external bluster and haste. But Eisenberg out-Allens Allen with verbosity, introspection and spot-on comic timing. However, the director couldn't bear to let him do all the talking, and narrates scenes with a pulpy authorial voice.
Family dysfunction; east coast versus west; the irrationality of love; enough Jewish jokes that land with the goyim. Most of the Allen touchstones are here, and add to this a signposting of his love of cinema, and it's very clear who's at the helm. The feel is of someone who's been looking back at his own work, and reconfiguring classic elements to avoid the erratic quality control of his past couple of decades. It is masterfully pulled off, but although there are some nice sidesteps from narrative formulaism, the aftertaste is of an inessential work.
Don't get me wrong: the opening night audience were laughing throughout, the players inhabited the world well, occasionally acting beyond their material (Kristen Stewart may feel underused), and ravishing outdoor shots outstripped even classic images from Manhattan. Which is a delight in Storaro's (and Allen's) first foray into digital. But one may miss the daring and whimsy of The Purple Rose of Cairo, or interesting moral questions of Match Point. Café Society shares its name with the club that newly-extroverted Bobby ends up running back in NYC - the crowds keep coming to both even after whispers of scandal behind their respective establishments. The movie's society is a dazzling, entertaining place to be for its runtime.