Café Society is Woody Allen’s eleven-hundredth movie and it’s the thirty-seventh time he’s made Annie Hall and the second time he’s done Midnight in Paris. It stars Jesse Eisenberg as
Woody Allen Bobby Dorfman, a New Yorker who goes to Hollywood to find his fortune, and Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, a 1930s hipster. Café Society also stars Steve Carell as Phil, an obnoxious Hollywood agent, and Blake Lively, as window dressing, as well as a litany of other actors you can be disappointed in for working with Woody Allen.
To be fair, Café Society is Allen’s best movie since Blue Jasmine. The dialogue is snappy, and there are some really good jokes scattered throughout. There’s a particularly good joke revolving around Bobby’s brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster in New York. As people describe Ben’s job with various euphemisms, we invariably cut to scenes of brutal executions and people being encased in concrete, and it’s funny every time. It’s actually the best bit in the movie. Fans of Allen will undoubtedly enjoy Café Society, and it stands up pretty well in the “Woody Allen Lite” category. It’s basically just Annie Hall set in the 1930s, but he’s remade Annie Hall like nineteen times and no one has cared yet, so I don’t see why anyone will care now.
The story is about Bobby Dorfman—Eisenberg is really good as the obligatory Woody Allen substitute, doing a dead-on impression—who goes to Hollywood to work for his uncle, Phil. There he meets Vonnie—Stewart is also very good, continuing her run of very good performances, and she and Eisenberg remain an entertaining screen couple. Bobby instantly falls in love with Vonnie, and he proceeds to run a 1930s Pick Up Artist scam on her until she caves and starts going out with him. Except Vonnie is also in love with Phil, with whom she was having an affair, and in the end she breaks Bobby’s heart and sends him back to New York, alone.
In New York Bobby mopes and joins his gangster brother in nightclub management—Bobby is the charming public face of their club while Ben uses it to launder money. Because this is a Woody Allen film and Bobby is the Woody Allen insert, everyone loves him and he’s the most popular and his club is the most successful, despite him being a creepy asshole. It’s at his club that he meets Veronica (Lively), a socialite who falls for him, reasons unknown—Bobby treats women like props. (“Veronica” also happens to be Vonnie’s full name, because Bobby is just the worst.) The second half of the movie is about Bobby leading a charmed life even though he is miserable and makes everyone around him miserable, too.
Café Society would be enjoyable—despite the relative misery of all the main characters—except for the subtext of the entire story. If you know even the slightest bit about Allen’s status as an accused child molester, and as an actual-fact man who ran off with his partner’s much-younger daughter, it is impossible to ignore the SMUG, TAUNTING core of this movie. Allen is daring audiences to enjoy Café Society even as he has laced it with the very themes that plague his personal life.
Phil praises his wife of twenty-five years, saying what a wonderful woman and mother she is, bust gosh darn it, he just can’t resist young Vonnie! And what is age, anyway? It’s just a number! Meaningless in the face of love! A character actually says this sh*t, and it’s clearly supposed to be a joke but it’s so wildly inappropriate given the context that a deeply uncomfortable silence fell in the theater while watching it.
Allen is directly challenging the notion that we’re supposed to separate art and artist by giving us a movie steeped in his real-life controversies. I, for one, can’t do it. It’s too blatantly BAITING. If you invite me to judge your movie through the same lens with which I judge you, then I will do it. Café Society is a creepy f*cking movie, about a creepy f*cking man, made by a creepy f*cking filmmaker.