“This whole town runs on ego”
Okay, I admit it: I’ve never seen a Woody Allen film before! Yes, it’s a glaring gap in my cinematic knowledge! There’s no particular reason why. None of his films have found their way into my collection! Last weekend, I took a trip to Sheffield with my fiancée, and I just had to see a film at the famous Showroom independent cinema. It was a choice between ‘Café Society’ and ‘Julieta.’ We/I chose the former. ‘Café Society’ definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, but that’s not a positive or a negative. It was a film of two halves; the first half full of intriguing twists and turns, the second rather empty and unfulfilling.
It centres around Bobby Dorfman, played by Jesse Eisenberg, in the 1930s. He leaves New York for Hollywood in hope of finding fame and fortune. He falls in love with his Uncle Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (the former played by Steve Carell, the latter played by Kristen Stewart). To tell anymore would spoil a few interesting, if predictable, twists and turns.
“Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain”
The first thing I noted was the beautiful, luxurious sets and design. Allen and his team convincingly recreate 1930s Hollywood (or, at least, what we think it would look like!). Every detail, right down to the smallest thing, is lovingly recreated. Put a bit of icing on, and the Hollywood sets would be good enough to eat! The sepia tone is intoxicating. Of course, a great set design is nothing without superior direction, and Allen invites us in to this world with long, sumptuous takes that reveal the intricacy of the set design. There are more long takes than I could count, each one brilliant in its own way. It’s almost a daydream of a film, one that I was willing to fall into for the first half of the film.
Jesse Eisenberg does another decent Eisenberg performance, but ironically his performance heightens as the film reaches its second half low. He changes from a neurotic, Woody Allen-type to a confident man. Steve Carell, as Uncle Phil, shows yet again (after ‘The Big Short’) that he is capable of a serious performance. He’s not just a comedy actor. The most impressive out of the bunch is Kristen Stewart, who puts on a great, understated performance. I’ve actually never seen her in anything else (I think), but every look, every glance, seemed calculated and effective. These three actors and actress combine to drag us into the compelling story. You can forget about the other characters though; they seem little more than cardboard cut-outs given a few lines that resonate here and there.
“Live every day like it’s your last and one day you’ll be right”
Unfortunately, the story stalls in the second half. To reveal precisely why would spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it. But after a big revelation, Bobby moves back to New York. Too many plot strands paradoxically combine with little happening of significance. Time dragged. Whilst still stunning visually, the film became bereft of anything else. The ending seemed an arbitrary one. It seemed as if Allen didn’t know how to continue the story after the halfway point, so just crafted scenes until he couldn’t write anymore. It all just seemed so…pointless! It was disappointing, considering the potential of the first half. There were so many creative avenues the film could have taken from the midway point, but instead Allen just plodded on until the end.
To paraphrase Bobby, I was half-bored, half-fascinated by ‘Cafe Society.’ For one, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful to look at. Allen’s direction and the set design together make almost every scene a work of art. I was happy just to look at the film. The three main actors put on good to great performances, and you care about them until the story and the film fall apart. But from the halfway point there were moments that I thought about walking out. Even though it was still visually admirable, there was nothing else to capture my attention. It meanders and bores until an abrupt ending. However, it has perked my interest in Allen’s previous work…
VERDICT: 6/10. ‘Café Society’ is visually stunning, bolstered by excellent direction and performances by Eisenberg, Carell and Stewart. However, the second half is a chore to endure and everything seems so meaningless by the end.
What did you think of ‘Café Society’? Leave your thoughts/comments below!