Every year I check in with my favourite New York neurotic to see what underrated treat he’s been occupying his time on. One cannot deny the fact that we are in the era of “Mild Woody”, but even his lesser endeavors are generally triumphant. The most vocal criticism towards Café Society, his latest ode to 1930s Hollywood, is that it’s more of the same. That is, for the most part, true. Over the fifty years he’s occupied our screens as a filmmaker, Allen has crafted a thoroughly clear image of himself as an artist. Those opposed to him, his image, and his style will surely reject Café Society as another one of his “mediocre outings”. But I’ve seen all forty-seven of his features, read his four books, and listened to every recording of his stand-up I could get my hands on. When it comes to Woody Allen, nothing is more appealing than “more of the same”.
That said, Allen fans will certainly notices some slight distinguishing alterations tossed into the mix. This is the first time the prolific filmmaker has used digital, and it shows markings of a more contemporary take on the period piece genre. Between some flashy transitions and an image that at all times seems to synthetically glow, it’s not overly reliant on identifying itself through means of classical styling. Some might oppose to this anachronistic technique, but Allen has never been one to focus on historical accuracy. His period pieces, which are plentiful in number, always feature characters who speak as if they were from another era or world. This is illustrated in farcical proportions in the “early, funny ones”, such as Love and Death or Sleeper. But the same can be said for his calmer endeavors, like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris, among countless others. His characters’ way of speech and nervous mannerisms seem entirely of a more modern setting. Allen juxtaposes this with period settings to accentuate ideas of isolation and alienation. His filmography is a lengthy list of stories about people who belong in different times, which is, essentially, also his life story.
These days, the responsibility for a leading man in Allen’s features seems to consist of performing the best possible impression of the filmmaker himself. That’s not Allen’s doing; his approach gives free reign for his performers to develop their characters as they see fit. Yet film after film, every male protagonist seems to rehash what the auteur popularized in his hey-day: the twitchy, stuttering shtick. The sole exception in recent memory is Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man, who reached into a darker and more sinister territory, replacing cuteness with a brooding sense of near-nihilism. In retrospect, it was a truly commendable performance. But in Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg returns to the familiar and comforting role of the Woody Allen impersonation. He excels at that, and while he is naturally similar to his model, most of own individual characteristics fail to shine through. I suppose Allen has found a way to immortalize himself. He can live on through the actors he casts without even having to act. I’m not protesting; I find it strangely endearing.
Much more original and powerful is what Internet Queen ™ Kristen Stewart delivers as the object of Eisenberg’s unwavering affection. Her face is engulfed with alternating pangs of despondency and supressed joy as she tries to untangle her way through a tightly and complexly woven love triangle. Allen has always demonstrated a much keener and more insightful side when plunging into the stories of his female characters. This is no exception. Stewart’s voice and slightest mannerisms provide the movie with emotional honesty. The film’s success at being both joyful and heartbreaking all comes back to what Stewart can accomplish with the slightest glance or blink of her eyes. She has now deserved her crown.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s shot compositions infuse the movie with an original aesthetic, crafting images never as gorgeous or as memorable as the Queensboro Bridge shot from Mahattan, but with a similar sense of wonder. Close-ups of Stewart’s face, bathed in auburn-coloured lighting. Long shots of lavish Hollywood gatherings. Storaro’s ability to deliver tenderness and vibrancy with his camera provides personality in moments where the movie is lacking.
Even though it’s disguised as a moderately breezy and romantic production for Allen, it manages to pack the same existential punch that we’ve seen throughout the ages. Discussions on philosophy are constant, alongside bickering on Yiddish culture, and 1930s movie talk. The difference between this and the likes of Magic in the Moonlight is the fact that Café Society’s story seems to be in touch with the same cynical ideas of meaningless it openly contemplates. Woody Allen meditates on the same unanswerable questions that perplexed the Russian literary masters. If Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, and Irrational Man are morality dramas in line with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, movies like Hannah and Her Sisters and Café Society would be tributes to Chekhov. They’re family dramas about human dissatisfaction that drip of despair. Café Society in particular is about how our temptations for the superficial distract and disillusion us from what truly matters. In the hands of another filmmaker, it might feel preachy. But Allen has always possessed a unique quality to make his commentary seem genuine. I suppose it’s modesty.