Café Society was a renowned New York nightclub that opened in the late 1930s. It was the first racially integrated club in the United States, and was where Billie Holiday first sang the haunting Strange Fruit.
The club’s name was a deliberate and mocking reference to “café society” – the lives of the rich and glamorous, the “bright young things” who went to the right places and were seen with the right people, beautifully dressed by the best designers and tailors, and supremely materially comfortable.
Woody Allen’s Café Society is a gentle and witty romantic fantasy about those sorts of lives, a dreamy movie about dream and dreamers. It has nothing to say about race relations – except those of the rising Jewish middle class – preferring the dramas of interpersonal relations instead.
Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a high-powered Hollywood agent. He’s at a party waiting for a phone call from Ginger Rogers, when his sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin) rings. Her son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), has grown tired of working in his father’s jewellery store and is heading to Hollywood to try his luck in the movie business. Rose is hoping that Phil can help out.
Bobby is a capable young man with ill-defined ambitions and a certain naivety and awkwardness. At first his uncle gives him the runaround, as he’s busy with business trips to Mexico and Canada, but he eventually finds a job for Bobby running errands. Phil also arranges for his secretary Veronica “Vonnie” Sybil (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around and get a feel for the place.
Vonnie, an English-Drama major, All American girl from Nebraska, initially came to Hollywood to be an actress, but as time passed she came to appreciate more and more the joys of being “life sized”, as she puts it. The two become close friends, but nothing more, as Vonnie has a boyfriend, a “travel writer” who’s often away.
As Bobby increases his standing in the movie business, he keeps in touch with his family back home, where his married sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) gives him girl advice via mail and his brother Benny (Corey Stoll) makes a name for himself as a gangster before getting into the nightclub business.
Things are going well in California, but Bobby misses New York – and then there’s the love triangle between Bobby, Vonnie and her beau. So Bobby heads home to manage his brother’s nightclub. He turns it into the place to see and be seen. But, of course, there are more complications to come, including another glamorous Veronica (Blake Lively).
Café Society is an elegant and graceful film that explores, and celebrates, dreams and dreaming. It gently skewers the motion picture scene with remarks about egos and backbiting, while at the same time celebrating the pictures themselves and the role they played, and arguably still play, in giving audiences an alternative life to help them live their own.
There may be trouble in the background, as Phil always seems to be dealing with disasters, but unlike the pressure-cooker “lunatic asylum” depicted by the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar!, the audience sees none of that, instead being left with a group who seem to be polite and treat each other with respect.
Woody Allen narrates the film throughout, giving it both a documentarian’s detachment, but also a wistfulness, showing that he remains as conflicted as he always has been about the movie business, loving it but unsure of its more mercenary side. He is more than ably aided by the stunning camerawork of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro – renowned for filming such masterpieces as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. The entire film seems lit witha golden gleam, a honey tone that gives the film a summer calm. This is reinforced by the languorous jazz score, emphasising the leisurely lives of the characters.
Unlike many of Woody Allen’s films, Café Society is not overwhelmed with some sort of existential dread or comfortable-class angst. There are the usual one-liners – “Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain”; and “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer” – but they’re one-liners rather than excuses for philosophy. Instead, the characters are all doers with not an artist among them. They enable art, they make it happen, by keeping studios going and employing musicians, but they’re not artists themselves.
In keeping with its theme, the movie is unreal, more like a young man’s dream or an old man’s nostalgia, than a realist’s commentary. There’s no Great Depression, no threat of war, no signs of poverty. It is an entertainment, not a think piece. It is a witty picture with a bittersweet tang, like fine champagne – and just as effervescent.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).