Café Society movie full length review - Gorgeous settings contrast with minimalist, meaningful, age-old plot
To get the easy bits out of the way first, "Cafe Society" is utterly stunning visually.
While this latest offering from Woody Allen (who directed and wrote, though only appears as a narrator) does not quite shy away from the idea that many people in 1930s America still had Victorian furniture; it mostly recognises how those who could, did take up with the Art Deco style, and there is nothing quite like that. Buildings, telephones, furniture, cars, advertising signs, paintings, exteriors, interiors all celebrate what was, after all, a cohesive trend in art and design well worth celebrating. Add to that as background (and occasionally foreground) music more hummable (and toe-tapping) golden-oldie tunes than you can manage, and occasional allusions to movies of the era (as clips or posters), and one could easily go away with the idea that 1930s California (and even, if to a lesser extent New York) was a cornucopian paradise.
Mostly this is so convincing that the paradoxical effect is for occasionally anachronistic elements of decor (and dialogue) to stand out painfully. Audience members find themselves saying "in the 30s, surely not?!" Obviously, Woody Allen is not that unsubtle, and we do at least hear in the dialogue that more people die of broken hearts in Hollywood than tuberculosis. Woody is well aware that this is unlikely to have been true, even there; and, yes indeed, the 30s were associated with TB, and with poverty, and the Depression, none of which are very visible in this film, though admittedly the gangster lifestyle is. However, like so many other films, "Cafe Society" encourages us to regard gangster activity as somehow funny, and indeed this is mostly the effect. Weird a bit, if you think about it, since we know we are laughing at something that is actually serious and ugly.
The same goes for yet a further Allen film reference to prostitution, which appears at the start of the film, takes us nowhere much, but is at the same time funny and rather touching. Presumably real-life prostitution is not much like that, most of the time. There is also a rather relaxed reference to drug-taking.
Is this film then corrupting or at least bewitching its audience by easy stages?
As often, we tread here a narrow line between homage and send-up (to say nothing of criticism). Many of the (mostly rather unpleasant) background characters that narrator-Woody introduces to us represent plausible enough types in past and present worlds, though the very fact that his voice presents them immediately undermines their reality - and their scariness - a bit.
Likewise Jewish uncle and nephew played by Steve Carrell and Jesse Eisenberg respectively don't look as if they are to be treated entirely seriously, though the acting of both is - as we would expect from these guys - proficient and persuasive.
And this is a comedy, after all, if in fact only just, since it's a familiar-ish and ultimately (fairly) serious matter when the above pair turn out to be in love with the same girl (played with verve by a beautiful Kristen Stewart, whose character comes over as far more lively than the one played by Blake Lively - no, I couldn't quite resist that one...). Stewart and Lively both do a good job here, but the latter holds back (and is only present in a small chunk of the film), so we are conditioned by the makers to see Stewart's character Veronica as Bobby's true desire, as opposed to Lively's other Veronica (yes, it is the same name, and so Allen is again making it fairly easy for us to get a point from life about substitute choices that is well worth getting).
Leaving some of the remaining plot (such as it is) under wraps, I will just say that the purpose of the film would seem to be to remind us that those who love more than once (and sometimes even at the same time) often end up living "if only" lives that can be sad and unfulfilling, but also complex and hurtful as an when and if they attempt to live the "if only" bits - for short periods at least - in real life.
This is of course about the oldest story in the world, revisited, and - maybe unsurprisingly - Woody Allen has no magic wand on hand to make all the heartache in this film go away. The love entanglements leave nobody very happy, and no amount of superficial glitz and glamour can hide that. It's a strong contrast with 2 ordinary and non-glamorous Jewish couples from Bobby's family back in New York, who moan about their spouses all the time, but stick with them and seem to be content in some real way - with lives that are so much less complicated - and far more decent - than those lived in Hollywood.
But, while some of those who got burnt had played with fire, the Jesse Eisenberg character of Bobby - extracted from the aforesaid Jewish families - is initially a total innocent caught up in cynical matters beyond his reach that force him ultimately to mature and become thicker-skinned and worldly-wise. So thick-skinned and wise in fact that he also becomes capable of hurting someone genuinely dear to him, but not quite "her"...
Such is "Cafe Society" in all its glory and seriousness. One suspects that it is the latter aspect that most audience-members take home with them (in spite of all the many and varied distractions) - and doubtless that is just what Woody Allen intended.