Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott
Genre: Drama, Romance
Considering that I’m writing this review in a Starbucks, I’m sure there’s a very topical joke to be made; however, one isn’t coming to me. Instead, you get this mediocre intro.I can’t tell if that’s better or worse, but I’m leaning towards worse right now. Who knows?
Anyways, for those of you who read my review of Kubo and the Two Strings, you’ll know that I was slipping into a swift depression because I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to see Cafe Society yet. Well, fear not loyal readers, for I have conquered my sadness! As it turns out, being back in a city that’s not in the backwoods of northern Michigan means that I can go see movies that aren’t just the standard big budget fare. Actually, as soon as I wrote that line in my Kubo review, I realized there was a chance that this would still be playing near me, and, fortunately for my wrists, a theater just two metro stops away has it playing all of this week! And maybe four more weeks after that. I legitimately don’t know.
Also, before you run your mouths in the comments, yes, I am aware that I’ve written over 200 words in a “review” without critically examining the product I’m reviewing. Like at all.
Let’s start here: Cafe Society is a film that lives and dies on its performances. The highest points are when members of the cast are interacting with one another. They have such a wonderful chemistry, particularly Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby and Kristen Stewart as Vonnie. I would imagine that any scenes in which the performances were poor would have killed the movie, but that actually never happens. Every member of the cast owns their role, and does so with a remarkable degree of consistency.
Where Cafe Society really gets me is its nature as a period piece. Woody Allen captures the 1930’s remarkably well, at least, to the best of my knowledge. Of course, the film excludes such topics as the Great Depression and the collapse of Europe, but those are very much not the point. This is a film about the individuals at the top of the socioeconomic period, and that material is handled quite well. It would be easy for the film to slip into vilifying them (which would be lazy storytelling) or making them out as heroes (which would be insulting). It does neither, instead opting to portray the characters as people.
There’s a sense of humanity to the film–despite the twists and turns the plot takes, every member of the cast feels remarkably human. They have flaws, aspirations, they fall in and out of love, and at the end of the day, they spend the entire film searching for happiness. Breaking it down like that may make the character struggles seem simplistic, but there’s a ton of nuance to each of them, and the relative simplicity helps make the whole affair more believable.
Cafe Society may also be among the most scathing critiques of the American dream I’ve seen on film. For those familiar with my tastes, what I’m going to say next is probably super obvious, but this was my favorite aspect of the film. The two leads–Bobby and Vonnie–rise through the ranks of society rapidly, but Bobby’s rise comes from his family connections and Vonnie’s through marriage. Perhaps even worse is Bobby’s brother Ben (played by Corey Stoll)’s ascension, which comes through crime.
The contrast between them and other sets of characters is what makes it all so poignant. Bobby’s parents, Rose and Marty (portrayed by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Scott, respectively) lead a relatively underprivileged life, despite multiple allusions to the amount of work they put in. Bobby’s sister, Eveleyn (Sari Lennick) and her husband, Leonard (Stephen Kunken), seem to be in a similar a position. The juxtaposition within a single family is striking, and it all falls into place exceptionally well.
All of this, however, is window dressing. It’s lovely window dressing, to be sure, but the core of this film is its dissection of the human condition. I know I mentioned this earlier, but the characters all feel real, which is what makes this element of the film run so smoothly. We get to see the leads work through multiple stages of their lives, and how, at each stage, they react to their environment and the people around them. It’s fascinating to watch unfold, although the pacing does seem rather fast at times.
There are significant swaths of the film that are dominated by a narrator (Woody Allen) delivering exposition. Now this isn’t actually all that bad. Most of the narrator’s lines are well written, and parts of it are rather clever. Unfortunately, this is still just telling the audience about events as opposed to showing them. Overall, I found that this lessened the impact that the film had. I understand why the time jumps are necessary, but I can’t help but feel that Cafe Society would have benefited from just a little bit more focus.
Ultimately, it’s the humor that ties it all together. There’s a lot of heavy stuff going on in Cafe Society, and if it weren’t for the playfulness of certain scenes, I get the sense it would collapse under its own weight. Not all of the jokes landed, but more than enough of them got audible laughter from me (and the rest of the audience, it should be said). There’s also a good mix in the film–it has its share of dark humor, but despite the melancholy tone, some of it is more lighthearted and playful.
Also, I’ve somehow gotten nearly 1000 words in without mentioning Steve Carell’s brilliant performance as Phil Stern. Between this, last year’s The Big Short, and 2014’s Foxcatcher, he’s an actor that’s finally proving his ability to do more than one role.
The tl;dr of this (oh god I used “tl;dr” in a review and didn’t even capitalize it someone stop me) is that Cafe Society is really, really good. It’s certainly flawed, but in spite of that, it’s easily cemented itself in the running for my favorite film this year. It’s flaws aren’t all that pronounced, and the things it does well, it does incredibly. There’s a lot to like here on pretty much every axis.