Cannes 2016 – Café Society (Woody Allen)

When you have already directed masterpieces such as Annie Hall, Interiors, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters (to name a few), but are so prolific that you’ve had your share of critical misfires and non-events, the bar is set high, but with enough reason for curbed expectations that it’s nearly inevitable that any new film of yours will be seen as competently entertaining, if underwhelming, at best. As such, it almost feels redundant to conclude that Woody Allen’s annual contribution to the cinema is not one that measures up to his greatest achievements, but is engaging and often witty enough to say that it’s worth a watch.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), wanting to escape from his life in 1930s New York, moves to Hollywood and procures employment, running errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), an industry titan of an agent, and is quickly promoted to a position where he is required to read screenplays. While working with Phil, Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), his uncle’s secretary, and is immediately smitten with her. He invites her to spend time with him, but when he makes an advance, Vonnie warns Bobby that it is not a good idea: she already has a boyfriend. Little does Bobby know that Vonnie’s boyfriend is his uncle, who has been married for twenty-five years, and is wrestling with the prospect of whether he wants to leave this marriage to pursue a relationship with Vonnie (who he has already been seeing for a year), and end their double life of meeting in dodgy bars.

In the midst of this back and forth with Phil, Vonnie finds herself intrigued, and increasingly attached to the adorably awkward but eager Bobby, and when it appears as though Phil has decided that he is unwilling to quit his marriage, the sparks between them are finally able to fly. Once the romance between Bobby and Vonnie begins to peak, Phil finally finds the resolve to leave his wife, and asks Vonnie to marry him. It is very confusing for Vonnie: there are many, and different, reasons why she is attracted to, and possibly even loves, both of them. Meanwhile, Phil and Bobby begin to catch wind of each other’s identity (which Vonnie has carefully concealed), and especially for Bobby, jealousy, resentment, and disappointment begin to sink in. Bobby, who in a proposal of marriage to Vonnie, suggests that they relocate to New York, decides after Vonnie has chosen to marry Phil to follow through with these plans without her, and joins forces with his brother to establish a swanky club that soon will become a High Society staple. Once he’s married (to a scene-stealing Blake Lively, who should have had more to do in her role) and has a child, he is reunited with Vonnie, and the past that they both thought was buried threatens to challenge their contentment in their lives.

One moment that stands out for the better is when, in an early encounter, Vonnie and Bobby stand in front of the gate to Joan Crawford’s home, and Bobby asks her, “Wouldn’t you love to be larger than life?” To which Vonnie responds, “I would rather be life-sized.” It’s an obvious statement about Kristen Stewart’s own celebrity persona, that suggests that she is not impressed by her fame, or thinks that how she is perceived by her zealous fans is ridiculous. What makes this beat stand out is that it is set against how it might normally be played: the tone is light, and it’s a passing statement that plays up casual Woody Allen banter, instead of being mounted as an important thought.

The conceit of the two interlocking love triangles is not particularly original, but Woody Allen proves that, even when not quite at the top of his game, he still is gifted and his material can be fresh enough to keep the audience engaged, even when the content seems so familiar. The supporting cast is colourful, with many familiar faces, but with little to do or reason to be there, save for the fact that this is a Woody Allen film, and therefore, it must have a large ensemble. In spite of a lack of material, Jeannie Berlin manages to elevate a stock Jewish Mama role thanks to her inherent presence and wit, as well as a few killer Woody zingers. While the supporting cast is often wasted, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have wonderful chemistry, and their roles ask them to go deep enough that Café Society earns the performances that they give. Kristen Stewart again proves her knack for naturalistic acting. While it is already a treat to see her continue to stretch herself, and persevere to overcome her trademark mannerisms, it has also never seemed so necessary to see her photographed by a cinematographer of the stature of Vittorio Storaro (particularly notable and breathtaking in one stunning final close-up): the combination of her performance, and his lensing, proves why Kristen Stewart is the closest equivalent to an Old Hollywood movie star in her generation.

Café Society is not Woody Allen at his most inventive, but it is certainly an entertaining, sweet, breezy summer film, with some interesting moments to consider, especially when it muses about the vapidity and emptiness of Hollywood life. Its light-hearted tone alone makes it a more suitable opener for Cannes than the films of the past two years have been (regardless of quality).