“In the 1930s, a young Bronx native moves to Hollywood where he falls in love with the secretary of his powerful uncle, an agent to the stars. After returning to New York, he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life.” – Amazon Studios
The most recent string of Woody Allen films, post-nineties, for many cineifiles, have yet to live up to his classics, and yet Cáfe Society has proven something somewhat unalike.
From the auteur who brought us Annie Hall and Manhattan, both featuring on the 101 Greatest Screenplays (Writers Guild of America, West), comes Cáfe Society. Champagne, New York and LA alike, are presented with a certain fervour we have come to love of the auteur. Unrequited loves and an ode to New York are played out. The artistic texture we have grown to desire from the filmmaker however, is somewhat different.
“Thank you. You’ve never heard of me, I’m a writer.”
A production budget of $30m and a cast that spans from Steve Carell to Jesse Eisenberg, Corey Stoll and Kristen Stewart, the stakes are high, but the worldwide gross within the first month suggests otherwise.
As Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine have been deemed as two of Allen’s modern greats, whilst the likes of Irrational Man and Magic In The Moonlight have fallen somewhat shy, Cáfe Society resurrects his status with a tale of lavish affairs, New York mobsters and romance.
“Love is not rational. You fall in love, you lose control.”
The film opens at a poolside party. A glistening blue pool. A towering home decorated with blue accents, pristine bushes and a scattering of glamorous guests. The film contrasts the Bronx with LA, and it’s easy to draw a comparison to Annie Hall; Alvy Singer’s New Yorker view of LA is something shy of pleasant. But Cáfe Society handles Los Angeles with a little more dignity, and far more extravagance.
Much of the film’s quality lies in the acting, dialogue and cinematography. One thing in which Allen excels at is great wit, dialogue and the subtle ability to expose through language. Allen has been deemed one of the masters of language in film and though not as stylistically applied and more subtly approached as in comparison to Annie Hall or such works of the era, it works, but it’s slightly lacking.
Mentions of Howard Hawkes, Judy Garland, Errol Flynn and MGM are in part for legitimacy, but sometimes as self-aware criticism on the Hollywood system. There are of course elements of dialogue that are harsh. Coercing old Hollywood gossip on the audience is somewhat frequent and garish to the ear. Perhaps because it’s Woody Allen, one can allow it. It’s not a damaging film, if anything, it still restores some faith from his previous works.
Death, an expected topic to arise from the auteur, is handled in two ways. A somewhat philosphical and religious exploration on death ensues as a result of the entwining gangster/mob storyline. Inevitably, Allen also finds a way to discuss the Judaism amongst this grande spectacle.
Rousing the texture of the film is the acting. Eisenberg embodies Woody Allen. Sometimes it’s like watching Alvy, Isaac or Lenny- Allen’s most familiar and idiosyncratic characters. It does however, go beyond the manner in which Allen writes his dialogue.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the role of a naive New Yorker, whether intent or not, with the attention to Bobby Dorfman’s character arc . As his clothes narrow and sharpen up, his posture straightens and his charm is never lost. He’s still awkward, his timing is paced in the way one expects from Allen’s screenplay. It becomes nostalgic, if somewhat less enticing and quick, but it remains pleasant.
Eisenberg is not the only actor to transcend with a cast that includes Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell and Blake Lively.
Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypsse Now, Last Tango In Paris, Little Buddha), has reunited with Allen, and is heavily responsible for the films aesthetic qualities. Having previously on New York Stories, which Allen co-wrote and co-directed with an amalgamation of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Richard Price and Martin Scorsese; much of the films core qualities lie in the visuals.
“For the first part, set in the Bronx, I tried to use a monochromatic, desaturated color with a low tonality of light, inspired by the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, and some work from Georgia O’Keeffe that she did about New York.”– Vittorio Storaro, Hollywood Reporter
Vittorio is one of few great cinematographers of the film era and yet shot digitally with Sony’s F65 4K camera, something still holds strong. The Bronx and LA are shot in visual contrast. Vittorio also stated to the Hollywood Reporter, of the challenges that the new digital age creates: “You need to find the balance of technology and art.”
Approximately forty-six films later and Woody Allen is still working, and still making watchable films. Perhaps as times and cinema alike alter and develop, certain filmic qualities are lost. But this luscious piece of cinema will have to remain a love or hate amongst those who simultaneously love or hate the filmmakers bank of film.