Never has Woody Allen’s adoration of the Hollywood Golden Age been as opulently explored as it is in 2016’s gorgeous “Café Society.”
Set in a 1930s more decadent than any of the fantasylands Rogers and Astaire lived in, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman, the idealistic son of a blue collar Jewish family who moves from New York to Tinsel Town with a strong desire to make it in the movie industry. With his uncle, the filterless Phil (Steve Carell), ranking as one of the town’s most respected talent agents, Bobby has all the right ingredients to become a powerhouse within the cutthroat Hollywood. Whether that rep comes from standing behind the camera or in front of it doesn’t much matter to him — long as he’s not part of his family’s uninteresting jewelry business back home, it doesn’t much matter.
Only a few days pass before Bobby begins to rub elbows with the right people and before Phil’s giving him meaningless tasks that seem primed to get him prepared for something. But nothing can compare to Bobby’s being introduced to Phil’s leggy secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who, unlike the mannered, overtly ambitious women calling Hollywoodland home, is serene, unrefined, and, best yet, easy to please. Bobby, being young and naive, falls in love with her immediately. He’d be wise to stay away, though — Vonnie’s embroiled in a serious affair with Phil herself, only giving Bobby so much of her time because her wealthier lover’s so fickle about leaving his wife.
Things predictably don’t end as quaintly as Bobby’d hope for — perhaps he’d prefer never getting involved with Hollywood nor Phil nor Vonnie in the end. The aforementioned storyline, anyway, only serves as the basis of “Café Society’s” first act: spanning years, it follows as Bobby goes from young upstart to New York nightclub owner to father and husband to a toothsome blonde (Blake Lively), inexhaustibly tortured by his romantic and professional past.
The film is a polished period piece more artistically savvy than anything Allen’s ever made. Visually closer to Baz Luhrmann’s lush “The Great Gatsby” (2013) than Allen’s own “Radio Days” (1987), “Café Society” is certainly his most optically lavish feature — it’s the modern day alternative to an Irving Thalberg vanity project, so stylistically uproarious we wouldn’t much be unopposed to watching the film sans sound, lapping up its ocular components more holistically than its material.
Fortunately the movie’s not a pretty case of style over substance: if Allen’s arguably indecisive as to what type of movie he’s trying to make (it oftentimes feels like two features conjoined at the hip), “Café Society” nevertheless stirs up the sorts of cinematic fantasies best summoned by Rouben Mamoulian and filmmaking team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, its central romance (wonderfully enacted by beautifully off-kilter duo Eisenberg and Stewart) the right kind of bittersweet, its drama and its comedy finding cohesion when respectively strung together. It’s all about as memorable as an RKO melodrama. But in our cynical day and age, I’d rather have something as flimsily old-fashioned as that than something desperate to please me. Allen, as always, is a maestro of fizzy escapism. “Café Society” continues his mastery.