Woody Allen’s “Café Society” Drifts into Another Time & Place

Woody Allen’s 2016 film Café Society invites you to enjoy a warm fantasy of 1930s’ Hollywood and New York. Ostensibly, you’re there to follow the life and loves of a young New Yorker named Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) searching for his place in life, but, really, it feels as if we’re escaping to the director’s imaginary playground.

Fans of Woody Allen know, and likely share, his obsession with the 1930s and ’40s. Not only was it the time of his youth, it is remembered as a more glamorous period where men and women dressed way better than they do today, the literati were wittier, intellectuals were prized, the cars were cooler and the music was better. Café Society delivers that nostalgia with verve.

Bobby is bored with life in the Bronx, and he hopes his talent agent uncle (Steve Carell) in Hollywood can find some work for him. Before long, his uncle has one of his clerks named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) showing Bobby around town. The two hit it off with natural chemistry, but it turns out there’s another man in her life.

Although Vonnie and Bobby are a perfect fit, they are young and unestablished, and Vonnie chooses the rich lover over Bobby. And thus, Bobby returns to New York and stumbles into a career running the hottest nightclub in Manhattan. He marries a beautiful blonde socialite named Veronica (Blake Lively), but when Vonnie slips back into his life, they must decide on the future of their loves.

The plot and Allen’s signature wit are enough to keep you engaged, but it really feels more like frolicking in one of Woody’s (cleaner) daydreams.

Eisenberg is clearly a surrogate for a role Allen would have played, if he were 55 years younger. He isn’t bad, either. Sometimes, in his other films, Eisenberg comes off as far too arrogant and smarmy for me to enjoy, but here he does an admirable job as an Allenesque character who is engaging and empathy worthy. He is far better here than in his star turn in Allen’s 2012 To Rome with Love. However, my favorite Woody stand-in to date remains Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris (2011).

Kristen Stewart is very good as a romantic lead. Charming and vivacious in a subtle way, she sparks well with Eisenberg for a very believable romance. She has as much a talent for humor as Eisenberg. They both seem to maintain a tenuous but believable grasp of the era, with only a little of a more modern sensibility slipping through their performances.

In the great pantheon of films that make up Allen’s career, it fits in well with his more recent retro themes of Midnight in Paris and Magic in the Moonlight, both of which are better to me, although that does not speak poorly of Café Society. It has a similar vibe as that which was started by Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and is more polished.

Of course, Allen has never shied from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Yet, Bullets over Broadway (1994), Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and Zelig (1983) have a completely different feel to them. 1987’s Radio Days is one of the best autobiographical movies ever made, but, it, too, is a different style than these more recent retro-set pictures.

Overall, Café Society is a humorous, charming romance set in and with the 1930s. It is decidedly worthy of a spin on the ol’ Blu-ray or DVD player.

Nathaniel Cerf is an avid Woody Allen fan who finds it is nearly impossible to keep up with watching the director’s films at the same pace the 80-year-old auteur produces them. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.