The latest cinematic frivolity from Woody Allen, Café Society is like a well-layered champagne cocktail; smooth and light, but with a deceptively subtle finish.
Set at the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the film follows the bright-eyed, slightly smarmy Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), the latest in a long succession of Allen surrogates, who arrives in L.A. with dreams of making it in the movie business; like his uncle Phil (a wonderfully distracted but crucially unhurried Steve Carrell), a preeminent agent.
Phil is too busy to make much time for him, but sets up with his secretary, the quiet, unpretentious Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, who seems to have developed a remarkably unaffected movie star charisma), for whom the unworldly Bobby quickly falls. The only problem: she has a boyfriend.
What starts as a casually understated love-triangle, presented by Allen with wit and apparent ease, alchemizes into something subtly more profound when Bobby returns to New York. As Allen’s unmistakeable voiceover conducts us smoothly from one nightclub table to another and across the dance-floor what seemed initially like playful name-dropping and superficial profiling – a count here, a business magnate there – become instead a Lubitschean commentary on public perceptions and private dreams; what we want, what others want, and what we end up with.
Whether its Carrell trying to avoid being overheard talking to his mistress who’s on duty at the coat room of a fancy restaurant – associates keep passing by and pausing to discuss business – or cutaways to Bobby’s brother gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) carrying out business of his own, the film never loses its lightness of touch. Vittorio Storraro’s breezy cinematography suffuses it all with the glow of nostalgia and all of Allen’s late-career trademarks – those formal white-on-black title cards; that light jazz score – are present and correct.
The supporting cast is lightly sketched and allow Allen to indulge in some typically erudite one-liners – Bobby’s other brother, the intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken), muses on what Socrates said of the unexamined life – and theatrical vignettes – in the earliest and most memorable of which, Bobby makes his excuses to a gaudy ingénue who’s trying to turn her first trick.
At the end of Café Society you may be left with an empty crystal flute, but it’s one through whose facets we may just have caught the slightest glimpse of something, dare I say it, very nearly profound.