No one expects an 80-year-old leopard to change its spots and Woody Allen, who has been writing and directing films for half a century, isn’t likely to relinquish the comforts of his style: the white-on-black opening credits, the tasteful jazz soundtrack, the fondness for May-to-December romances. Watching each new Allen film is like rifling through a jumble sale in search of anything novel or coruscating that will stand out from the worn and well thumbed. Café Society contains two important distinguishing elements: the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro, which makes the film appear to glow from the inside, and a performance by Kristen Stewart that achieves much the same effect.
The film begins with the arrival in Los Angeles in the mid-1930s of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a twitchy greenhorn from the Bronx. He turns up at the office of his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), a movie agent in his fifties, and asks for work. Phil puts him on the payroll and in the care of his young secretary, Vonnie (Stewart). Her introduction is something to see – and hear. The two men are jabbering away in their high voices, Phil preening and self-important, Bobby nervy and shrill. In strolls Vonnie. She stands next to Bobby, who is seated, and angles her face down towards him, like a satellite dish changing position to receive a clearer signal. Then she speaks. Her voice, deep and husky yet also quiet, can’t help but sound like a rebuke to these whiny, inconsequential men.
Vonnie is happy to show the newbie around town. They marvel at the extravagant homes of movie stars around Hollywood. Bobby wonders what it might be like to be larger than life; Vonnie replies that she is happy enough being life-sized. Needless to say, he falls in love with her. What he doesn’t know is that she is a year in to a passionate affair with Phil.
In Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, a documentary-maker was locked in a tug of war with a boorish philistine over the same woman. This time, the distinctions aren’t so binary. Phil may be a married, star-struck schmoozer but Carell’s warm performance, with its smudges of sadness, makes it clear why Vonnie has fallen for him. He has the edge over Bobby, though that may just be because the younger man comes saddled with the tics, speech patterns and limitations of any surrogate Woody Allen figure (John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, and so on). We know him inside out before he has stammered his first wisecrack or rhapsodised about the cheesecake at Lindy’s. The effect is one of same character, different film.
A subplot involving Bobby’s brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a violent hoodlum, reprises the storyline in Crimes and Misdemeanours about a man who pays his criminal sibling to carry out a hit. This allows for some brief mentions of God and sin, and also lures Allen into sub-Scorsese territory – a disastrous choice that shows up his lack of expertise in the crime genre. His gangsters are as stiff as 1930s movie thugs; it’s as if The Godfather and The Sopranos never existed. When the camera swoops through a nightclub and the narrator offers a précis of each eccentric reveller, you wonder if Allen is feebly mimicking Goodfellas on purpose, or simply hasn’t seen it.
Allen delivers the cornball narration, which suggests an unfunny man’s idea of what urbane comic writing might sound like. He thinks “cranial ventilation” is a witty euphemism to describe a gunshot to the head. And he has so little faith in his cast that he outlines each character’s feelings (“Vonnie enchanted him”; “Phil couldn’t believe what he was hearing”) before his actors have had a chance to work their magic. That is downright disrespectful when you have hired a collaborator as expressive as Stewart, who can do more with a lopsided smile than Allen can with pages of verbal clichés. Storaro, whose credits include The Conformist and Apocalypse Now, soaks her in reds, oranges and golds. Between them, they make a fine miniature film of their own in the confines of a mediocre one.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war