Decades into Woody Allen’s mirror maze career of inward-looking, self-reflecting gazes and upper-class first-world problems, a “new” thesis from this particular director whose only theater is his own mind is not exactly a prospect anyone is likely to expect any time soon. That Allen only ever repeats himself is, at this point, of less concern than whether his variations on old themes are inspired on their own terms. Without exactly spoiling anything, Café Society is the platonic ideal of Allen hovering around in his middle-brow, middle-tier. Café Society is more or less how you contextualize it, a prism for refracting one’s personal tolerance for the octogenarian who has canonized himself almost as many times as years he’s lived. A slight, pleasurable uptick in his continued slide into irrelevance? Another totem to his conceited brand of self-loathing self-aggrandizement that long ago lost its luster or rabid-dog intelligence? Café Society is all of the above and not much else. Which is to say: your mileage may vary.
Actually, it is something else: a mild triumph for one of the reigning masters of visual aesthetics, Vittorio Storaro, who essentially revolutionized color cinematography after providing every last B-cinephile with a lynchpin argument for the relevance of horror cinema when he filtered what he learned from lensing Dario Argento’s giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage though to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, one of the most important works of film aesthetics ever released. Café Society is not a patch on either of those films, but by Allen standards it is damn near Edward Hopper, even if Allen the curmudgeonly old man long ago lost interest in using film (aesthetics or otherwise) for anything close to Hopper-concentric loneliness or dusky, midnight-hour American fragility. Crossing America to depict LA as an exterior, appearance-first world of sun-soaked, glowingly nostalgic fraudulence and New York as a den of vipers sauntering and skulking through smoke-lit interiors, Café Society is a beautiful film and a veritable study in contrasting city spaces. Now, it hardly has more to say about Allen’s ambivalent relationship to both LA and New York than Annie Hall. But then again we’re 39 years away from Annie Hall, and at least Café Society doesn’t feel 39 years less inspired.
Allen, ever the stuffy scripter, doesn’t exactly try too much not to feel uninspired though. Set during the Great Depression, Allen’s film spends an inordinate amount of time throwing bones left and right to Allen’s bougie audience hoping that they laugh not in humor but in empathy for a man who insists on reminding that he, like they, is of superior education – note I did not say intellect – to those who do not understand his references to the stars or yesteryear. If his audience has abandoned him, it seems Allen’s primary retort is to feed them signifiers of his own intelligence by lobbing classical Hollywood Molotovs straight into their egos (from James Cagney, mentioned in passing, to Rudolph Valentino, whose memory is graced (cursed?) with serving as a plot point).
The sheer deluge of these names is a remarkably but not surprisingly conceited feint toward intellect and humor, a morass of lazy-mouthed replacements for thoughtful dialogue or knee-slappers (with Allen they’re always more humdingers anyway). Above all, they reflect attempts to retain cultural clout among “respectable” audiences who once packed in to Allen’s films for the benefit of their own cultural capital. Late on, Allen takes a woman character to task (since Allen is one old dog who will adamantly not learn new tricks) for turning all glamour queen gossip diva on us. Yet Allen’s film, is not so paradoxically, an embodiment of this very object of disdain, making the feature not only self-hating but, unlike many of Allen’s masterpieces, unaware that it is self-hating.
That woman is Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the only “real girl” that Allen-surrogate Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) meets when he moves from New York to LA (the film will move back roughly past the half-way point) to work with his famous talent agent uncle Paul Stern (Steve Carell). What begins as a romantic-triangle (Vonnie is, naturally, also being wooed by her boss, the very same Paul) massages into a parade of gazes, unspoken non-utterances, and fragile human relationships. If it sounds messy, it is, but at least most of these threads are connected by Allen’s narration, delivered in his weathered, laconic old-age anti-croon that evokes the passage of time more intimately than anything in the film.
At the very least then, Café Society is Allen the writer-director’s best use of Allen the performer in many a year. Speaking of which, Eisenberg, Carrell, and Stewart are all in top or near-top form, but then Allen has never exactly awkwardly stumbled around his casting decisions. Eisenberg is such an obvious Allen-surrogate on paper that you are almost unprepared for how he inflects the role with his own temper and sense of unease, almost as though his neurotic poise could legitimately turn into a full-on tantrum of anxiety that is actually threatening. Carrell provides an uptick for a flat role with his own charisma, and Stewart terrifically exposes her minimalist style to a sense of indecision that reflects the character’s tortured internal realm that Allen the writer does not bring out. (Café Society is evidence, at least, that Terrence Malick should get in contact with Stewart at some point).
But Allen gives them all a sketch of a narrative more than a full-fledged story, even though the digressions and empty-calorie moments eventually attempt a simulacrum of how we all spend life in a blur of moments that only coalesce because we aren’t squinting hard enough to see how arbitrarily connected they really are. The whole film hovers on this awareness of temporal uncertainty that desperately wishes to peek out under the plastic veneer of the cinematography. (The look is, in all fairness, gloriously gilded as a commentary on the plastic superficiality of the LA moments the film basks in). But Café Society never achieves the self-critical air it is lazily hoping to stumble past. The best the film can hope for is being a whisper of a memory of the more dialectical, conflicted Allen films that Café Society thumbs through like old jazz records in some New York record store. It’s a collection of hazy facsimiles of Allen’s past, enlivened only by a game cast and admittedly beautiful cinematography that the film never uses to its best potential.
A few particularly uncomfortable references to father-daughter relationships feel smugly knowing and unearned considering Allen’s home life, all the more-so for how timid the rest of the film is. Yet they’re also refreshing, the only sparks of genuinely strong emotion one feels in a film mostly content to rest in pleasantly neutral modes. The emotion happens to be disgust, but what can you do?