Going to a new Woody Allen is always a nervy business. There’ve been so many failures and disappointments over the last 10 or more years that you just don’t know if you’re going to sink back in pleasure into your seat or hide behind it in horror at what this once great film-maker can do. I’m pleased to report that Café Society is one of the former, a light and beautiful concoction of nostalgia that begins by bringing a smile to your face and ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. The café society (rather strangely named, with its connotations of European rather than Californian high life) is that of 30s Hollywood, a milieu from the past that that Woody is perhaps more comfortable and skilled in presenting than his patchy forays into contemporary life. The deco buildings and glossy people come from a land of lost Hollywood where he can make a pact with us that gangland can be seen as a bit of a joke and it’s kind of ok for sensible, likeable young women to opt for a pleasant sugar daddy over a more genuine relationship with a contemporary. As always with nostalgia, it’s for something that never really existed, but none the less potent for that.
Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfmann is a perfect Woody surrogate, a jittery, unworldly young ingenu sent by his family to get a job with his successful Uncle Phil (Steve Carrell) in Hollywood, the East v West Coast conundrum at the heart of many of Allen’s films. Even his shoulders are geeky. Carell is perfect as smooth but human agent to the stars. Most perfect of all is Kristen Stewart as his engaging assistant Vonnie with whom Bobby falls head over heels in love. Suiting the 30s fashion to a T, she manages to be both astoundingly beautiful and totally ordinary, quite a feat.
Tempered by the flames of unrequited love and Hollywood socialising, Bobby returns home to join the family firm, where his brother Ben runs a successful club. In his white suit, his new-found earnest sociability and his useful Hollywood contacts he’s good brother Michael to Ben’s Sonny, who is in the habit of tipping rivals into a concretey grave, a tendency his family turn a cheerful blind eye to. Back home it’s a cramped Jewish New York household familiar from Radio Days and Stardust Memories, with Ken Stott, stout and grumpy, particularly good and surprisingly convincing as father of the family.
The humour is gentle, not laugh-out-loud, the poolside Hollywood mansions and swanky New York clubs, with snippets of conversation name-dropping Bette Davis or Adolphe Menjou affording fun for anyone with a fondness for the old times, and all the pleasure of easy-on-the-eye folk going about their slightly ridiculous business. But in the end it turns imperceptibly into a bit more than that, an understated melancholy for a lovely past, airbrushed though it might have been, and the final frame shows Bobby turning into a dark outline against all that light, reconciled but forever dulled by his loss.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September 2016