A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.
Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Barbara Stanwyck in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).
The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie. The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.
The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.
Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.
The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Love, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.
Woody Allen’s first film on digital.