It feels like a year cannot go by without Woody Allen releasing a new film—one that is inevitably set in some quaint decade of the past, starring an array of beautiful young women who fall for men who are both older and homelier than them. Some star Allen himself in a minor role, while others only remind us of him through similar-sounding voiceover narration that neatly explains character motivations. His latest film in the latter mould is Café Society. Set in the 1930s Hollywood, the film tells the story of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), an artless young man who moves from New York to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a big shot talent agent. Bobby is less enchanted by Hollywood than he is by Phil’s assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), but their love story is complicated by the fact that Vonnie is actually in love with, or at least sleeping with, Phil.
Café Society is a beautiful film, in large part thanks to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The scenes in Los Angeles are stained with a honeyed hue—even the characters are fake-tanned; a bittersweet reminder of Hollywood artifice. Certain shots seem lifted straight out of an advertisement for high fashion—in particular, a scene of Vonnie and Bobby on the beach, and later, one where they are reunited in New York’s Central Park. In this vein, Suzy Benzinger’s costume design is perfect—the clothes evoke time, place and character in equal measures, and are a central aspect of what makes the film so visually delightful: Vonnie in her tennis skirt and socks is casual glamour incarnate, while Bobby stutters and flails in his high-waisted, baggy pants. In many ways, Café Society recalls Allen’s much earlier films. Like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s diminutive male lead in Annie Hall, Bobby talks too much and in a manner that is neurotic and self-absorbed, the way one speaks to a psychoanalyst, and like Annie Hall herself, Vonnie is captivating and chic—the exact opposite of her male lead. No doubt, if he were younger, Allen would have played Bobby himself. Instead, he casts Eisenberg, whose performance is either derivative or an astute impersonation of Allen’s famous cerebral persona, right down to his hurried staccato tones.
Another quirk of Bobby’s that echoes Allen’s earlier roles is his bravado around beautiful women that seems disproportionate given his homely appearance. In light of modern views around gender relations, Bobby’s attitude towards women is cringe-worthy. When Vonnie comes to his house crying because she has just broken up with her boyfriend, he comforts her by telling her how pleased he is because he has feelings for her. His method of seduction is to pester Vonnie repeatedly about how unhappy he is to be friend-zoned. Instead of being annoyed—the natural response, one would think—Vonnie humours him until she falls in love with him. To me, Bobby seemed more pushy than lovable, rendering his courtship with Vonnie (a central part of the film’s emotional cache) rather awkward and contrived.
Moreover, it is difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware of its self-referential overtones. Kristen Stewart, who was famously shamed for having an affair with married director Rupert Sanders in 2012, is cast as the long-term mistress of a married man, Phil. When Phil tells Bobby about how young his mistress is without mentioning that his mistress is also Bobby’s current girlfriend, Bobby emphatically speaks about how age is just a number. Given how closely Eisenberg/Bobby resembles Allen himself, this emphatic declaration comes across as a veiled attempt by Allen to excuse his own much-maligned courtship: his marriage to his step-daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Even Veronica, Bobby’s wife, has a media narrative—she is played by Blake Lively, whose marriage to Ryan Reynolds is hailed by many media outlets as perfect. A central part of Lively’s media presence is her frequent statements of affection for Reynolds, expressed over Instagram and Twitter. Casting her as Bobby’s faithful wife renders Veronica’s plight even more tragic. We know that Bobby will never love her as much as he loves Vonnie, and that he will likely lie to her about this forever.
Despite the discomfort in these real-world allusions, Café Society is a fun, slick film. The cinematography is stunning and Kristen Stewart is a mesmerising presence on screen. The film is simultaneously a homage to Allen’s earlier works and a comment on Hollywood life, specifically the blurred line between the personal and the private lives of its actors. It is difficult to watch the film without recalling the scandals of the celebrities involved, such that the cast seems to flicker between their characters and their public personas. The film’s major downfall, though, is its portrayal of women and their relationships with men, particularly in how unsure of themselves and apologetic both Vonnie and Veronica are. Allen had set out to illustrate how difficult and complex love can be, but in the end, he inadvertently demonstrates how unhealthy relationship dynamics might breed an inferiority complex that is sadly not uncommon in women today.