More than any of his numerous recent films, Woody Allen’s Café Society conveys the enormity of life’s experience, and it does so using the most direct means possible: by simply piling up incidents. While the 80-year-old filmmaker’s speedy rate of production continues to be laudable, the velocity of his recent work is equally notable. These days, Allen’s screenplays carom from one plot point to the next with a highly selective regard for what to bother picking through the implications of, and Café Society bears that tendency out in the extreme. Here’s a film in which the protagonist’s mafia-involved brother is put to death at one point and all that’s allocated to the passing is a curt establishing shot of ash-spreading before a cut to a wailing nightclub crooner jars the film back into its jazzy swing.
Café Society’s Depression-era sprawl concerns several years in the life of Bronx-bred Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), for whom a single brightly burning romance defines an otherwise turbulent epoch. The object of his affection is Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), an assistant-level employee at a showbiz firm in Los Angeles, where Bobby decamps after identifying the dwindling options—basically criminal activity and/or small business operation—presented by his Jewish working-class family back in New York. Bobby’s West Coast connection is his uncle, Paul Stern (Steve Carell), a hotshot talent agent working above Vonnie with a packed schedule of galas at seaside mansions and a Rolodex of the era’s most celebrated names, so the untrained newcomer is quickly indoctrinated into a world far removed from anything resembling the hardship of the period.
Bobby is by turns transfixed by and suspicious of the glamorous locale, and his ambivalence toward L.A. marks a disposition that’s rare among Allen’s many surrogate neurotics, which gives the director a chance to indulge a mildly more affectionate vision of Tinseltown than he’s allowed in the past. Working in digital for the first time alongside cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to summon up the deep-focus lucidity of the period’s studio style, Allen has invested great care in garnishing this embryonic and idealized Hollywood, a milieu aglow in sunburnt yellow and palm-tree green. Paul’s cavernous Beverly Hills office is a spiffy oak-walled repository of gold-crested décor and Art Deco adornments; the site of Bobby and Vonnie’s first date is an impossibly charming Spanish-style café with a mural of old Mexican street life prominently covering a wall; and even Bobby’s temp apartment, which is hampered by bad electricity merely to justify one dramatically timed lighting modification, has the look of a place only an exec could afford today.
Vonnie’s draw for Bobby is that she’s rather unfazed by all this decadence—this in spite of the fact that, upon first meeting her, she’s involved in a fling with the married Paul. Naturally, that’s not made privy to Bobby right off the bat, but when Paul cuts off his dalliance in the name of domestic duty and Bobby begins to woo the forlorn Vonnie, the elephant in the room closes in on Allen’s ill-fated hero. Bobby’s offer of marriage, which comes attached with a plea to move back to New York, collides with Vonnie’s evaluation of her options and her eventual decision to remain in California to wed Paul, who, in a fit of self-reckoning, has gone from cheater to family man to divorcee.
This whirlwind of events spurs Bobby’s return to the Big Apple alone and unfulfilled, though the fleeting scenes of courtship between him and Vonnie constitute the film’s emotional core. Eisenberg and Stewart displayed their chemistry before in Adventureland, but it’s impressive that they’ve retained that spark while also shouldering long-cemented Allen archetypes—specifically the intellectually ambitious neurotic and his more socially accomplished love interest. With that said, as narrated by Allen himself in a laconic deadpan that emanates a weariness of time’s passage, the film casts a jaundiced eye on the lighthearted events it dramatizes; even Bobby and Vonnie’s early blossomings of attraction are shaded by an awareness of eventual collapse and disappointment. In his most delicate touch, Allen lingers on a lengthy close-up of Vonnie as Bobby playfully inquires off screen about her detached mood, with Stewart’s face flickering a storm of uncertainty and guilt upon learning of Paul’s separation.
Café Society gets its title from the nightclub Bobby heads up with his brother (Corey Stoll) upon returning to New York, and it’s in this passage that Allen’s fondness for the mythology of the era can’t be disguised by the front of a narrative; one Steadicam tour around the club that introduces us to the city’s social and financial elite functions solely to indulge the director’s nostalgic imaginary. The film’s emotional momentum, if not its plotty swiftness, burns out a bit as Allen elaborates on Bobby’s new life as an aristocratic liaison and a married man, but it regains its footing when Vonnie spontaneously re-enters the story with an overhauled identity as a gossiping socialite. The reunion, initially tentative and then bittersweet, hits with a wallop, at which point the somewhat messy accumulation of life events starts to feel retroactively like a structural maneuver. As clarified potently by Café Society, much of our lives are spent distracted from matters of the closest personal significance.