CAFÉ SOCIETY Review
Director: Woody Allen
To say that Woody Allen has been around would be a vast understatement. Few filmmakers come close to his vast catalog. And although his films are almost consistently covering similar thematic ballparks, there’s an undeniable charm to the prowess of such a proficient character writer. CAFÉ SOCIETY inducts viewers into a realm that is all too familiar for fans of Allen’s earlier works. A neurotic jew tries to make it big in Hollywood. But by bestowing this plot with a period-era flourish, Allen keeps it from feeling too been-there-done-that. Add a strong cast to it and you’ve got a charming, hopelessly romantic addition to the late career of a polarizing cinematic icon.
Capturing two distinct milieus in the sepia-tinted glitz of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the colder aura of New York’s bustling, gangster metropolis, Allen tracks Jesse Eisenberg’s decision to leave his native Manhattan in order to make a name for himself in the film industry. While the surface of CAFÉ SOCIETY appears to cover the desire to make a life for oneself away from home, the heart of Allen’s story is still that of a romantic, thematically falling in line with the angsty, hopeless romances of ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. The two distant settings appear all the more disparate due to the film’s period setting, and as such, CAFÉ SOCIETY channels the sentiments of lost love in ways that Allen hasn’t done in years, tragically sad and boasting an undeniably poignant finale.
Period piece or your average Williamsburg couple?
While late-career Allen has rarely ever been formally experimental, it’s interesting to see CAFÉ SOCIETY play with some inventive blocking and framing, but never with enough precision or time for them to feel like anything other than brief distractions from Allen’s more traditional talking head filmmaking. While Allen’s writing is certainly exciting and makes up for any lack in formal qualities, it’s a shame that the best scenes in CAFÉ SOCIETY are the brief wide shots that willfully don’t cut into close-ups of faces. As soon as regular coverage takes over, the film becomes painfully lazy, occasionally so much as slowing to a screeching halt. These moments feel like an assembly edit, only ever showing who is speaking rather than who is listening.
But perhaps its biggest blunder is how inauthentic the period setting feels, with Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart delivering great performances that feel just a slight bit out of touch from their era. Especially when compared to the Coen brothers 2016 release about the golden age of Hollywood, HAIL, CAESAR!, one begins to realize that CAFÉ SOCIETY is cute and romantic, but not exactly faithful to its universe. While this doesn’t damage the overall narrative, it makes one wonder why Allen chose the specifics that make up CAFÉ SOCIETY’s world. His love story is ultimately timeless and universal, but by sticking to a singular era, this feels oddly undermined. Admittedly, this might be on account of Allen’s old soul personality, with CAFÉ SOCIETY representing yet another nostalgia field trip in his filmography, but wouldn’t this story have been just as serviceable starring a hipster couple living in Echo Park?
Kristen lays on her Taco-Flavored Kisses
And yet, despite its flaws in execution, CAFÉ SOCIETY confidently coasts by on its charm alone. What makes this doubly impressive is that the character intrigue and charisma manage to mask most of the film’s pitfalls entirely. The fluidity of the narrative ticks like a finely tuned watch, and the comedic beats both inform on character and narrative, despite sometimes feeling like scrapped concepts from better Allen pictures. While its first half is certainly the most charming, it’s the third act where payoffs and tragic poetics of lost love start to hit their stride. Thanks to a change in setting after the film’s second act break, Allen cleverly incorporates a shift in color to mark how time changes us as people, but how love will never fade.
What ought to be noted is that CAFÉ SOCIETY probably won’t leave any extreme sentiment with its viewers. Allen has released a charismatic, pretty film that confidently propels its story, but also one that isn’t cinematically daring or uniquely thought-provoking. Instead, Allen’s film relies almost entirely on the natural chemistry of its stars. And whilst this would often conclude in a long list of complaints, it’s hard to deny that CAFÉ SOCIETY boasts some of the most endearing on-screen personalities in Allen’s post-millennium filmography. Is it going to change the minds of Allen naysayers? Probably not. But it’s certainly another wonderful experience for those that identify as fans.