It would be easy to say that Woody Allen repeats himself (it would also be a severe falsehood), but his development of the themes he's dealt with for the greater portion of his career in cinema has only been complimented by the methods he's perfected in expressing them. Churning out one interesting film every year, with Café Society (2016) being his 46th film, Woody Allen continues to demonstrate his prowess as a filmmaker. He's an artist who doesn't feel obligated to take the easy route narratively, or even do the thing he's known for doing best: communicating ideas with spoken words. Café Society, unlike some of Allen's other films, is filled with ambiguity as it deals with the human heart in a manner that is very close to reality – and it's sometimes the things that remain unsaid in this film that have the greatest impact.
Introduced in voice-over, by Woody Allen himself, we are taken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood – a time when Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck were the Kristen Stewarts and Blake Livelys of their day. Poolside, a braggadocios agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) boasts of awaiting a call from Ginger Rogers... The phone rings and Phil is summoned to answer it, only to find that it's his sister (Jeannie Berlin) who is trying to ensure that her son will be able to see Phil when he arrives in Hollywood. Her son (Phil's nephew) is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a twenty-something who is hoping to take advantage of new and exciting opportunities while away from Brooklyn. After waiting several weeks to see his uncle, Bobby finally meets Phil and is hired by him as an assistant to run errands. In an effort to get Bobby acquainted with the area, Phil assigns one of his secretaries, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town. Naturally, love is in the air.
Not to say that Woody Allen is known for likable characters, but Café Society presents a slew of protagonists who are more like genuine people in that they're not "good" or "bad", but rather they're flawed – for better or for worse. That being said, the moral ambiguity of the characters and their personal desires makes this a highly unconventional film that spans several years. Alternating between scenes of private interactions and social interactions, there are many sides to the characters of Café Society on display at any given moment: who they are, and who they want others to think they are. Some of the finest moments in Café Society are the scenes in which people show their true colors while amongst a crowd – when people are isolating themselves from the joyous atmosphere around them (no matter how contrived that social tone is).
Narratively, Woody Allen has devised a non-linear story that can go back to the past with a snap, or skip an entire year (or more) entirely. It's effortless, and the introduction of Blake Lively's character (Veronica) proves it while reinforcing where the heart of the film's protagonist lies. We don't see Bobby and Veronica fall in love (not at first, at least), but rather she's introduced as his wife out of the blue – signaling to the audience that time has passed and that things have changed. Veronica is beautiful and glamorous, and yet she's totally on the periphery of Bobby's heart and the plot. All of this is indicative of the quality of Bobby's moral character, which isn't that high.
Though the characters are colorful and nuanced, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is troubling. Perhaps much of my concerns do not fall directly on Storaro's shoulders, but I imagine that he had a fair amount of involvement with the color correction of Café Society. Unattractive grey-tinged filters reside over much of the shots in Brooklyn, as well as shots that are in flashback. Scenes set in Hollywood have a warmth to them, but they are not exempt from their own issues. Storaro's use of light highlights the subjects, which enhances the digital gloss of Allen's first digitally shot film. That's not necessarily an issue, as it is consistent, but digital feels so detached from the era being depicted on screen. Further, there are two scenes in which the film's lighting can actually be observed flickering at a frame rate that doesn't correspond to the frame rate of the film (perhaps Storaro and the set designer were using bulbs from the era, or maybe the DCP at my theater was struggling in those two scenes?).
Unlike the cinematography... the locations, costumes, hair and makeup, and set designs are exquisite. Look no further than Parker Posey and Paul Schneider's characters, who are dressed and made up with impeccable taste and flare (and they pull it off with incredible authenticity)! Set against the balcony of a lavish Hollywood mansion or the green fields of a Gatsby-esque estate in New York, these characters and the story they're operating within really come to life.
It's beautiful though to see a film that embraces the problems and struggles of its central characters and gives us the meat of their moments of vulnerability. In fact, Café Society is a film crafted solely around such essential moments, and the order in which Woody Allen presents these scenes is vital for determining their meaning and importance. The conclusion of the film is devastating in its subtlety, and it's remarkable that Allen is able to pull off relating an idea and feeling that is so intangible yet utterly universal. For some, this ending will be "unsatisfying", as a film by anyone else would keep on going for another thirty minutes or an hour (which would've been fine with this film too), but it's so bold for Woody Allen to end Café Society as he does. It's an ending reflective of reality, and it's the kind of ambiguous ending that only a director of Allen's caliber could achieve.
My rating: 4/5