Woody Allen’s Cafe Society**** opens the 69th Cannnes Film Festival with a frothy, movie-steeped period delight, striking a familiar yet ever affecting mood between sun-dappled comic romance and collective moral despair.
Set in the mid-1930s, Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman a young Jewish man disillusioned with his father’s Bronx jewellery business (Allen’s own father was, among other things, an engraver), who sets out for Los Angeles where his distant uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is now a big Hollywood agent.
Eisenberg is one of the most perfect of all Woody proxys. He’s done it before, briefly, in To Rome With Love, but it’s interesting that as Eisenberg’s own career as a playwright blossoms, he’s also finding himself in disastrous blockbusters such as Batman v Superman, just as Woody despaired to be working on Casino Royale and What’s New Pussycat back in the 1960s.
Here, he’s note perfect in his awkwardly heavy suit amid the light dressers of LA. There’s a scene with a Jewish call girl that’s pure Woody farce, before eventually, Bobby settles into a new job with Uncle Phil at the agency and an unrequited, romance with Kristen Stewart’s Vonnie, who takes him to see Joan Crawford’s house and Barbara Stanwyck movies.
However, Vonnie has a boyfriend. “Aha,” squeals Parker Posey, as a wealthy fashion designer who has become Bobby’s new-found confidant. “That’s life – that’s why Rodgers and Hart get rich.” And indeed, Allen peppers the almost constantly twinkling soundtrack with as many standards by the songwriting duo as he can muster: Manhattan, This Can’t Be Love, A Fine Romance, I Didn’t Know What Time It Was….
For this is a film about youthful idealism and the souring of dreams. As such, it comes across as an initially odd mix of Radio Days, Bullets over Broadway and Crimes and Misdemeanours. There are glamorous parties with white telephones, exotic-sounding nightclubs (The Brown Derby, Coconut Grove, Le Tropique), movie stars and blue-stubbled gangsters lobbing bodies into cement graves. And, at long last again, Woody himself provides the voice-over, one that sounds rather world-weary (or is it perfunctory? These days, I admit, you can’t always be sure…) compared to the bright Brooklyn twang delivery of Radio Days.
It does give the film a novelistic texture, widening its scope. Cafe Society isn’t just about Eisenberg’s Bobby, but takes in Carell’s Phil, Stewart’s impressively complicated Vonnie (what fabulous outfits, by the way, and how Vittorio Storaro lights her like a 30s movie star), Blake Lively’s beautiful Veronica and Bobby’s extended family, including his older gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), his big sister (Sari Lennik) and his anguished, Yiddish-quoting parents (played somewhat surprisingly by Jeannie Berlin – Elaine May’s real-life daughter – and British actor Ken Stott).
It initially feels a little disparate, but the stories and themes entwine rather masterfully, in the way only Woody Allen can do it.
Fed up with the shallows of the social scene in Hollywood, Bobby returns to New York to take on a different life as a nightclub owner. And this later part is something Allen himself could never have acted – Eisenberg grows into his role impressively, becoming more confident and pushy – until the past catches him off guard, like a thunderbolt.
Meanwhile, there’s a passover Seder dinner and some business with a noisy neighbour that’s giving older sister migraines, all of which serve to give Bobby’s parents cause for existential torment as they debate the ways of God. Suddenly, tragedy enters the family. “It’s a shame the Jewish religion doesn’t have an afterlife,” wails his mother. “They’d certainly get more customers.”
Here, buried, is a great Woody one-liner that’s typically funny and philosophically probing all at once. And there are quite a few decent gags throughout, both in the playing and in the thinking: Bobby’s white wine that’s been breathing so long “it may have evaporated”; “live everyday like it’s your last – and one day, you’ll be right.”
At one stage, Bobby even admits: “Life is a comedy, but written by a very sadistic comedy writer,”. And so, with the gorgeous-looking Cafe Society, bang goes another movie – officially the 47th – by a director who, now in his 80s, clearly sees himself and the world in this cruelly comic light.
With a tale of confused hearts, glamour, murder and morality, Woody Allen is revisiting many of his favourite things in Cafe Society, restating his themes about taking responsibility for your actions as you teeter between love and death. Although, he’s also saying, beautiful women, late night jazz clubs and dawn carriage rides in Central Park clearly help us all along the road to eventual unenlightenment….
Woody Allen’s Cafe Society opens Cannes tonight and is on general release in France from today, the US in July and UK in September.