REVIEW: Café Society [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 96 minutes | Release Date: July 15th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate / Amazon Studios
Director(s): Woody Allen
Writer(s): Woody Allen

“Dreams are … dreams”

Ever since Woody Allen left New York City for England in 2005 to create some really spectacular films outside his usual comedic efforts of neurotic meet-cutes, I may have intentionally tried to avoid anything he made with a character he would have played himself a decade prior. I personally don’t count Midnight in Paris simply because Owen Wilson owns that lead role in a way Allen couldn’t equal. So when Café Society was announced with Jesse Eisenberg at the fore, I did cringe a bit. I think The Social Network star is a brilliant actor, but his casting seemed too on the nose. And then the trailer released, the Allen-isms assaulting me like nails on a chalkboard—that same shtick of awkward, babbling confidence inevitably winning new love.

But then it opened to raves with friends bandying about the Oscars as a certainty. Suddenly I needed to see it sooner rather than later on home video because I might end up mired in regret otherwise. If Allen had a bona fide winner I wanted to make sure to experience it on the big screen, especially considering talk that three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro captured the bi-coastal scenery with expert precision. Maybe it would surprise me; maybe the trailer set it up to be something not quite true to what it would prove. Perhaps there was more to this seemingly by-the-numbers romance of New Yorker lost in Hollywood (Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman) and the vision of beauty who captures his heart (Kristen Stewart‘s Vonnie) than meets the eye.

In all honesty there is. Café Society starts off like any other Woody Allen romance until the mid-point switch from a document of love’s foibles into one of love’s pain. The whirlwind drama—and comedy—of a love triangle we’re quickly made aware of while the men battling for affection are not builds to a crescendo that may not resolve itself quite how you’d expect. There’s some heartbreak here and not the kind to merely propel the plot forward until cracks are mended for happily-ever-afters and unrealistic depictions of idyllic harmony. This heartbreak stings, it lingers. It evolves and matures its victims into stronger creatures, unafraid of the past and boldly of a mind to cherish those memories shared despite still being cognizant their futures must remain apart.

Allen breaks his tale in two: one half on the west coast, one the east. Bobby seeks change, a vitality working at his father’s jewelry shop could never supply. And since his brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is a literal gangster mixed in racketeering and murder, a Hollywood agent of an uncle (Steve Carell‘s Phil Stern) becomes the safer choice. So off he goes to California where starlets and nepotism reign supreme as marriages dissolve via catching the gaze of someone new rather than sabotaging that which is old. It’s a cutthroat life that builds a tougher skin on Bobby’s back as it reveals itself to not be quite what he desires. It prepares him for life as a NYC club manager, hobnobbing the same clientele without the innuendo.

He goes through a metamorphosis the same as the object of his affection. Bobby evolves from naïve innocence struggling for a foothold into a man about town who knows everyone and genuinely wants to be their friend. Vonnie transitions from strong-willed, antithesis to the celebrity dream of fame and fortune into exactly that. Their lives change them into what they declared they’d never be, into arms of others to cultivate an alternative happiness than the one they envisioned together. The question then becomes whether or not their hopes have changed too. Is this newfound joy as powerful as the one they shared? Or does seeing each other after years have past rekindle those feelings that never truly went away? And would Allen succumb to cliché for his answer?

Thankfully he doesn’t. Every twist and turn somehow finds a place of authenticity rather than fantasy. What seemed like a light and breezy comedy of the heart with a wealth of humorous juxtapositions and comic relief vignette asides proves to be surprisingly dramatic in its machinations. Criminals get what they deserve, good people making regrettable mistakes feel their guilt, and love destroys as easily as it creates. The way Woody leaves Hollywood behind halfway through is nothing short of magnificent, Act One showing itself to be a prelude towards what he had in store for Bobby’s growth as an honest yet flawed human being. That past leaves an indelible mark, the life he builds subsequently both a comment on it and result of it for better and worse.

The people met on both coasts are identical, some drawn to the glitz and glamour and others cutting a path through the excess. One couple straddles both (Parker Posey‘s Rad and Paul Schneider‘s Steve Taylor), their stability an anchor of goodness for Bobby to aspire towards. Many interactions otherwise do prove convenient and Allen embraces the joke of saying how something is what it is with unwarranted profundity—A dream is a dream, life a comedy written by comedy writers, etc.—but you forgive the simplicity of his writing here because of the complexity of his characters. What they say can be excruciatingly obvious, but how they say it emotionally worthwhile. The cast runs with their roles, bringing them to life despite the apparent trivialness of their lives.

Far from perfect, Café Society is at the very least honest. You see the strings yanking its plot and yet Bobby and Vonnie traverse it with an effervescent ease of pure free will. The little moments wow you (Eisenberg opposite Anna Camp‘s prostitute and his first encounter with Blake Lively‘s Veronica); the depth of character drawing you in to acknowledge mankind’s inherent desire to adapt with intelligence and grace (Eisenberg does well with a few upgrades while Stewart seemingly recreates herself each passing day). The life that could have been is drawn out; the life that is rapidly unfolding to allow a reunion with that past speaking volumes in their contrast. Regret may be inevitable, but so is discovering newfound happiness through the very decisions that created it.

courtesy of Lionsgate

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