Feasting at a smorgasbord of film, there is the morsel that looks fantastic but is unpalatable… the exotic mouthful that surprises with its explosive flavour… and then there’s the reliable treat you know, trust and love that never lets you down.
Woody Allen’s latest cinematic offering, Café Society, is the favourite dish you once relished, revisited. Wistful, nostalgic and elegant, it is easy to swallow, enjoyable without guilt, and simply satisfying.
A return to what Allen does best, though half-set in LA, the film is ultimately an ode to yesteryear New York – complete with fledgling skyline, underground jazz bars, unruly gangsters, and unfulfilled true love.
It also boasts a fine cast. How could you not enjoy scene-stealer Parker Poser doing what she does best, mocking the elite socialites of old New York, channeling a 1930s Barbara Stanwyck swanker and hairdo to rival Joan Crawford?
The homage to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald is subtle and tastefully captured in the nostalgic 1930s mis-en-scene dedicated to the love of all things art deco, with splendid details such as dazzling Hollywood parlours, socialite garden parties and silver screen goddesses all reminiscent of Gatsby’s opulent style.
Nods to Howard Hawkes and the Hollywood Studio system add up to a warm memoir unfolding as key character, film producer Phil Stern (Steve Carell), wrangles to secure the next big talent, negotiating the who’s who of Hollywood alongside green wannabes – each peddling the American dream of fame, fortune and their own degrees of Gatsby-like decadence.
Jesse Eisenberg breathes new life into Allen’s alter ego, Bobby, Stern’s naive nephew from the Bronx, searching for a better life, estranged in the Hollywood boom of celebrity, illegal money rackets, and women for hire. Bobby, a younger version of Allen’s early protagonists, is at first unlikable in a scene uncomfortably scripted, but signals the irritating quirks and bookish goofiness of the director, both as the new cog to the system and an unassuming leading man.
Allen’s ever-present voiceover threads the narrative with a pinch of his philosophical neurosis conveyed through Bobby’s comedic ‘Seinfeldesque’ father who is challenged by his Jewish belief that “there is no heaven in the face of death”.
There’s nothing really new in the plot of love versus social standing, with the central struggle of the leading characters delivered in a lukewarm performance by Kristen Stewart, as love ingénue Vonnie… and yet her aloofness works. Her conflicted choice of marriage suitor is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s tragic lovelorn elite Daisy and Gatsby, but not nearly as tragic as it should be, lacking our sympathy for Bobby and Vonnie’s unresolved love tryst.
Blake Lively’s rather two-dimensional – but very beautiful – Veronica envokes more sympathy and is utterly stunning, epitomising a key subject of the Hollywood Star system and looking every bit like 1930s screen siren Veronica Lake.
In sum, Café Society is rompish fun that cleverly pays tribute to the studio genre of magnificent sets, contrived cinematography, soft-focus lighting, and spot-on scripting – all laced together with Allen’s signature wit and a cool jazz soundtrack.
Although no Annie Hall, this film has all the hallmarks of becoming a (post)modern classic. Annette McCubbin
‘Café Society’ currently screens nationally, including at Luna and Palace Cinemas.