The highly anticipated Café Society is Woody Allen’s latest film. An homage to 1930s America, the film centres in on Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man in his twenties, living with his lower-middle class Jewish family in New York. Embarking on his quest for the American Dream, Bobby trades his native Big Apple for glamorous Golden–era Hollywood, seeking his uncle, Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), whose roster of film-star clients includes Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper. Working odd jobs for his uncle, Bobby finds love in the form of Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Uncle Phil’s secretary. With newfound love, the bashful, stuttering Bobby finds a sense of purpose but, in typical Allen fashion, Bobby’s plans for securing his place in Vonnie’s heart will quickly go awry.
As a filmmaker, Woody Allen has arguably redefined romantic comedies, peppering them with philosophical ponderings and caustic one-liners. Distinctive features of his films include jazz soundtracks, rambling yet amusing monologues, and relationships in which a young woman falls in love with a much older man. Under the guise of comedy, Allen always finds the opportunity to explore normative questions, related to the topic of ethics. In Café Society, a discussion concerning ethics is raised through the portrayal of the protagonist’s brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), as a gangster, frequently shown on screen to be partaking in criminal activity.
One of the defining characteristics of Allen’s films is the unique cinematography. Viewers do not need to be equipped with an expert knowledge of cinematography, or even know the meaning of the fancy term, in order to appreciate the remarkable camerawork in Allen’s films. Long panoramic shots of sepia landscapes and rapid camera movement from one half of a couple’s face to the other during an argument can almost always be found in his creations.
The atmosphere of any film is shaped by the camerawork employed in each scene. Particularly skilled cinematography possesses the power to transport the audience to the era in which the film is set. In the case of Café Society, Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro captures the laissez-faire spirit of the lifestyle adopted by the Hollywood crowd in the ‘30s. Just as convincingly, he conveys the drab, dreary nature of the austere lifestyle led by Bobby’s lower-middle class family in New York.
A prime example of the contrast between the opulence of the L.A. social scene’s crème-de-la crème and the measly lifestyle of New York’s working class is the camerawork during a scene depicting a phone call between Phil Stern, the successful, wealthy agent in Los Angeles and his sister, Rose, who lives in New York. When Phil Stern is speaking on the phone, the camera pans slowly so that viewers have a chance to take in the lavishness of Stern’s sprawling estate, before finally settling on a shot of him lounging poolside, during a soiree held for his film star friends, surrounded by aspiring actresses working as cocktail waitresses. Conversely, on his sister’s end of the phone call, the camera quickly pans from Rose to the several other family members inhabiting a small, bleak apartment in New York, all crowded around a miniscule dinner table, thereby creating a claustrophobic sense. In this way, through vivid visual means, the audience gains a deeper understanding of the class schism between the two siblings’ lifestyles.
Café Society is brimming with a colourful cast of characters. Arguably the most impressive character is the talent agent Phil Stern, portrayed by Steve Carell. Phil is the embodiment of the American Dream, transforming himself from a working class youth to a wildly successful Hollywood agent, rubbing shoulders with film stars. This is a challenging role, as the character in question is so lively that an overzealous performance runs the risk of reducing the character to a caricature. Steve Carell is a perfect fit for the role, achieving to convey Phil’s sensitive nature, which is well-hidden beneath the character’s obnoxious, name-dropping veneer.
The protagonist, Bobby, is as complex a character as his uncle, Phil. However, Eisenberg’s performance is far less inspired than Carell’s. The character of Bobby appears to be modelled after Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, in Annie Hall (1977). Both share neurotic tendencies and a high degree of self-doubt. However, while Allen’s portrayal of Alvy resulted in a multi-faceted character whose aloofness masked a deep-rooted insecurity and vulnerability, Eisenberg’s attempt to offer a glimpse of Bobby’s sensitive nature seemed insincere. Creating the impression that he was still stuck in character as Mark Zuckerburg in The Social Network (2010), Eisenberg did not manage to convince viewers that his character in Café Society was capable of harbouring romantic feelings so profound that his first heartbreak would haunt him for the rest of his life.
While Blake Lively’s function is mostly ornamental, appearing late in the film to portray the protagonist’s trophy wife, Parker Posey’s role as the wife of a famous screenwriter, is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. Whereas Lively’s character, Veronica, trades her social life to become a devoted housewife once her first child is born, Posey’s character, Rad Taylor, leads a successful career as the owner of a modeling agency. Refusing to allow her husband’s success to intimidate her, Rad never hesitates to express her opinion, dominating most conversations with men. Despite her outspoken nature, Rad is not portrayed as overbearing, which unfortunately is often the case with opinionated female characters.
Boiled down to its most basic, Café Society is an intellectual romantic comedy, portrayed in Woody Allen’s unique brand of deceptively simple comedy, concealing existential and ethical concerns. Friendly to audiences of multiple generations, the film’s cinematography presents viewers with images so captivating that they manage to engage even the short attention span of action-starved millennials.
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