For Cafe Society****, his 47th official feature film as writer and director, Woody Allen also turns narrator. It’s the first time he’s done the voice-over for one of his movies since 1987’s Radio Days, when he was cheerfully recalling his 1930s childhood in Brooklyn.
Now, 80-years-old and sounding a little weary, he’s back in the 30s again, in the Bronx, telling the story of nervous young Bobby Dorfmann (Jesse Eisenberg) who, at the prompting of his overbearing mother, heads west to get a job with rich uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who’s such a big shot Hollywood agent, he even uses a white telephone.
Perfectly portraying the part Woody himself would once have taken, Eisenberg adds his own style to Bobby’s woollen-suit awkwardness amid the heat and glamour of Tinseltown. Eisenberg’s a better actor than Woody ever was, and he builds a careful performance over time, smartly allowing us to trace Bobby’s emotional ups and downs.
The ups come when he falls in love with Kristen Stewart’s small-town secretary Vonnie. The downs when he discovers she, in turn, is in love with Uncle Phil. Stewart plays it all very sweetly but with a jangling edge of panic. This is a story that never allows itself to get comfy, to settle. It is wistful and wary, though always beautiful and charming and set to the plinking tunes of Rodgers and Hart (A Fine Romance, This Can’t Be Love, Manhattan…)
Heartbroken and unrequited, Bobby leaves LA – much in the way Woody’s Alvy Singer left it when Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall rebuffed him back in 1977. (It obviously hurt so much, Allen hasn’t shot in LA ever since, until now). But Bobby puts that particular dead shark behind him and throws himself into Manhattan’s titular Cafe Society, making a name among the bright lights and clubs of Manhattan, the sorts of places and palaces of which the teenage Allen could only dream. “They don’t accept Jews at The Stork,” reflects an uncle in Radio Days, listening in to the New Year’s Eve glamour over the wireless.
But Bobby, aided by the Jewish gangster dealings of his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), becomes the toast of the town, running Le Tropique nightclub and managing to woo the society beauty Veronica, played with real movie star grace by Blake Lively.
And yet. That old love for Vonnie haunts Bobby still. This is a film about success and fame, but also about failure and regret, the double chord that says you can’t be happy without sadness creeping in. It feels a very personal movie, Cafe Society and anyone familiar with Allen’s work (did I ever tell you I wrote a book about him?) will spot favourite recurring themes.
This is Radio Days, meets Bullets over Broadway meets The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanours and Match Point, where fond family memories knock against gangster myths, Jewish guilt, bickering parents, while movie stars come to life and society-climbing ambition leads to murder and recriminations.
It’s a strange concoction indeed, especially as it’s all played out as if it were the lightest of trifles, the airiest of souffles. It is often funny, but every joke is laced with a bitter aftertaste. “Live every day like it’s your last,” says the mother, “and someday, you’ll be right.”
Eisenberg and Stewart are excellent, really etching in details where their characters may be sketchy on the page, and Carell brings a soulful pain to Uncle Phil, worn down by the venality of the movie business.
I liked Cafe Society’s elegance and dreamy escapism, and I admired its constant contrasts, the dappled light of LA against the murky brown of the Bronx apartment. It’s Woody Allen, older but no wiser, still chasing his youth but painfully aware it’s vanished.