At 80 years old, Woody Allen hasn’t finished making movies just yet. His latest effort, Cafe Society, is a picturesque look at the path of romance that features a stellar cast.
Woody Allen narrates the story of Robert “Bobby” Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a middle child born to a Jewish family in NYC. Not want to work at his father’s lowly jeweler shop, he decides to go out to LA to make a life for himself. His mother sends him to see her brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big time movie agent to the stars. Uncle Phil leaves Bobby flapping in the breeze for about a month before finally meeting with him and giving him a job as an errand boy. He also has his secretary Veronica aka “Vonnie” show Bobby around the city. Their tour gives Woody Allen a chance to take some beautiful shots of LA. It also gives Bobby a chance to see that Vonnie is like other LA girls. When he asks her if she wouldn’t like to live the larger than life lifestyle of the LA stars, she responds with “I’d rather be life sized”. Vonnie’s personality and looks cause Bobby to fall for her. Unfortunately for him, she already has a boyfriend.
Because fate (or Woody Allen) is cruel, Bonnie’s secret boyfriend turns out to be Uncle Phil. They have been having an affair, about which Vonnie comments, “I just hate the duplicity of this”. Phil feels the same and promises to leave his wife for Vonnie. Unaware of the identity of his rival, Bobby continues to bide his time in case Vonnie becomes available. Fortunately for Bobby, Phil falls through on his promise to end things with his wife. He also breaks up with Vonnie because he doesn’t think the situation is fair to any of them. This pushes Vonnie right into the waiting arms of Bobby. They have a whirlwind romance for about a year before Bobby asks her to move back to NYC with him. Around the same time, Phil confides in Bobby that he’s been torn up over a lost love and is going to leave his wife to try to get the woman back. It takes a few more steps and conversations but, eventually, Bobby and Phil find out that they’re each in love with Vonnie. They push her to make a decision and she chooses Phil.
A heartbroken Bobby moves back home with his family. The family consists of his mother and father, his sister and her armchair philosopher husband and his brother. Bobby starts working at a club with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Taking cues from Phil’s fancy parties in LA, he and his brother turn the club into a social hot spot. The success turns Bobby’s life around. He marries a woman who’s also named Veronica (Blake Lively), but doesn’t go by Vonnie, and they have a child.
However, as Bobby puts it, ‘”life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer”. One day Phil and his now wife, Vonnie, walk into the club. This immediately stirs up old feelings for Bobby, but not all of them are good. Vonnie convinces Bobby to have lunch with her and the two start to pick up where they left off. With Phil constantly working and Veronica focused on the new baby, Bobby and Vonnie find themselves spending a lot of time together and talking about how life has changed for both of them. They even share a kiss in Central Park before Vonnie and Phil head back to LA.
After Ben has some issues with the law, Bobby becomes the full time owner of the club. Bobby would end up flying out to LA to look into opening a branch there. While in town, he and Vonnie would revisit some of their old hangouts. Even though they still have feelings for each other, both of them figure that it’s probably not a good idea for them to keep seeing each other and stirring up these feelings. It’s never revealed if the two actually had an affair but, when Veronica asks Bobby about it directly, he denies cheating on her.
The movie ends with a new year’s even party at the club. Talking about the recent troubles that the family has had with Ben, Bobby’s brother in law waxes poetic about thinking about life. He quotes Socrates saying, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living” and follows with, “but the examined life is no treat either”. As he says this Bobby is caught looking off longingly in the distance. At the same time, Vonnie finds herself doing the same thing on the other side of the country at her own party. Their faces are overlaid as they both think about what they have and what they’ve lost.
What did I think?
To the best of my memory, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Woody Allen movie in a theater. Honestly, I haven’t seen a lot of his movies, but I’ve heard a lot about them. One of my favorite generalizations of Woody Allen movies is that they are full of pretty pictures of pretty people wearing pretty clothes in pretty places. This movie definitely fits that mold. Eisenberg and Stewart may not be the “classic” beauties that first come to mind when you think of “attractive”, but they are definitely both good looking people. Allen clearly goes out of his way to get shots of the architecture of both LA and New York during the movie as well as putting them in very distinctive outfits throughout.
On a side note, I feel like I see Kristen Stewart in movies where I’m constantly being told how attractive she is (the Twilight series, the Huntsman movies, etc). Even though this movie does that too, this is the first time that I remember seeing a shot of her and thinking, “she’s really pretty” during a movie. There’s a kind of unusually angled shot of her while she and Eisenberg are on a bridge in Central Park that just framed her really well. This isn’t that big of a deal. It just struck me because I was finally able to see her beauty for myself instead of just having it stated to me. I guess I have to give Allen credit for that.
I was also surprised by how well the humor of the movie worked. It reminded me a bit of the feeling of the more dry humor in The Lobster. However, Cafe Society has humor that’s much more direct. Even though some of the comedy comes at unexpected moments, there’s no awkward sense of “was that a joke” or “should I laugh at this” when the comedy is delivered. My favorite example of this is a scene between Anna Camp (playing a rookie prostitute) and Eisenberg. Their entire exchange is set up as a culmination of the isolation of Eisenberg’s character and it ends up just being a hilarious farce of an exchange.
Even though the humor of the movie works well, there are some other things that left me a little wanting. For the first half of the movie, I didn’t feel like Kristen Stewart’s character fit. She seemed a bit like someone from the modern day and age dropped into an antiquated setting. I also wanted to get more of Blake Lively’s character into the movie. Her performance was good but, the character seemed to get very minimal use for someone who should’ve been fairly important. Really, most of the characters end up being underdeveloped. However, I suspect that was design as this is a story that’s more about the characters present and future than their pasts. The one character that I just could not stand during this movie was Bobby’s mother. Every line she delivered just felt incredibly awkward and unnatural. Again, I’m sure there was a reason for this, but I couldn’t figure it out. In the end, I just didn’t care. I just wanted her to not be there.
Overall though, this is a very charming movie. It’s got lots of nice things to look at and a story that does have some resonance (at least with me). It’s not necessarily and innovative love story but it is a refreshing one when you’re in a world that’s inundated with endings that can only be happy or tragic. It’s the kind of movie that makes you think about the relationships that you’ve had and the ones you hope to have. I think it’s the perfect movie for people who are a little bit older or looking for a nice, quaint movie to watch.
Cafe Society (2016)
- Beautiful antiquated shots of LA and New York
- Eisenberg and Stewart complement each other well
- The dialogue and story are very clean without sacrificing depth or subtlety
- Movie isn't pure comedy, but has some standout comedic moments (like Anna Camp's scene with Eisenberg)
- The ending of the movie is somewhat open ended (not really a problem unless you need to have everything wrapped up in a bow)
- I found it hard to grasp just why Bobby and Phil were so drawn to Vonnie
- I really wanted more of Anna Camp and Blake Lively