Late in Café Society, Bobby Dorfman, a former Hollywood lackey–cum–club manager in New York, arrives home with a surprise bouquet for his wife. An affectionate gesture, you’d think, but for it coming on the heels of a night out with his ex-girlfriend — and for the look on his face when he hands his wife, Veronica (Blake Lively), the bouquet. Dorfman is played by Jesse Eisenberg, which might tell you everything you need to know about that look: angular and close-lipped but, per the actor, somehow dense with unruly feeling. (How does he do that?)
Is it a guilty look? You could say that. This is a movie in which a marginally talented, ineffectual young man trying to make it in Hollywood becomes too effectual for his own good. He seems to get everything he wants — a job, a girlfriend — and after he loses it all, he gets it all back, and then some. It’s an embarrassment of riches, which in the School of Woody Allen makes him a sucker, the unknowing architect of his own misery, too much in love to realize the game is rigged. Bobby’s expression is classic Eisenberg. But the feeling, the Gordian knot of existential displeasure that’s as sincere as it is humorously ridiculous — that’s all Allen.
Late Allen, rather. He’s 80 now. And his recent movies are not only among his most successful (Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine were bona fide hits) but, in the case of this new movie and last year’s Dostoevskian Irrational Man, also his most damningly fatalistic. (That’s saying a lot, given who we’re talking about.) On the surface, Café Society is more of the same old. It opens with a trip to the Hollywood of the mid-’30s, halfway into the studio system’s Classic Era, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were making movies like Swing Time and Barbara Stanwyck was The Woman in Red: a high point for the industry, surely, or at least for its stars. It’s an Allen-esque leap back in time (been there) with a romantically tangled, slightly hunched nebbish at its center (done that).
But when a character calls L.A. “a boring dog-eat-dog town” with disgust, rather than with biting mockery, the sentiment, familiar from as far back as Annie Hall, feels unusually sharp. And when Bobby, who moves there from New York to make it in the studio business, leaves not because he’s failing — nepotism gets him far — but because he’s bored, you sense a slight shift in Allen’s attitude. The movie’s been called a “creakily nostalgic ode to Old Hollywood,” but Allen hasn’t exactly written the place a love letter. As a business, his Hollywood is simpatico with the overworked, disaster-prone Hollywood depicted in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! earlier this year, though Allen is a bit less forgiving. The Coens unearthed the heroes and shitstorms of the industry with equal parts sincerity and clever derision. Allen’s take is almost entirely absent affection, to say nothing of actual celebrities. Their mansions loom as lifeless as ghost saloons, and the stars themselves are the ghosts, reduced to bits of witty pool party chatter among studio heads — men whose concern for art and artists rarely strays past speculation about the day’s deal.
The New York of the movie is not much better. Gone, again, is the endearingly neurotic romanticism and possibility of Allen’s earlier films, replaced with a city run by liars and cheats — gangsters and politicians — and populated by morally indecisive civilians, people like Bobby’s relatives, who sic known crooks on their asshole neighbors. He’s having fun with it all, mind you: ’30s jazz, Allen’s go-to, gives his brief but frequent snippets of gangster violence a mischievous bounce. The most morally decisive person in the movie is one of the worst: Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a club owner whose enemies tend to wind up buried in cement graves.
Allen was born in 1935. In a way, Café Society is about his childhood. But despite the enduring belief, encouraged by his love of historical fantasy, that he’s a mere nostalgic, Allen’s desire isn’t to relive the past, but rather to demonstrate that no matter what it is, our malaise du jour ain’t new. Corruption and romantic misfortune are hardly recent inventions — who better to point this out than an octogenarian fatalist comedian with a movie camera? Speaking of, this is the first movie Allen shot digitally, with the help of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shot Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor but does icier work here. For all their beauty, Allen’s images are tinged less with misty nostalgia than with a modern, cockeyed cynicism. He isn’t pouring one out for the era; he’s readying the cement.
The romance that emerges from this is, predictably, an Allen rumination on idealism and authenticity. The women in Bobby’s life are both named Veronica: Bobby’s attraction to each is, of course, premised on her originality. Each is the genuine article amongst so much artifice. Kristen Stewart plays Vonnie, the Minnie Mouse–chic agents’ assistant who avoids giving into Hollywood’s love of itself, but then chooses it over Bobby. Veronica, Blake Lively’s radiant New York divorcée, has a thing for bad boys like her doper ex-husband and Jewish boys like Bobby (she finds them “exotic and mysterious”), making her all too easily charmed by the man Bobby becomes when he leaves L.A. and all too ready to fill in the gap left by Vonnie, his truer love.
These are three young people weighing their needs against their wants. Café Society’s final moments are a bittersweet tribute to youthful idealism and the romantic near-miss, written and directed by a man reveling in his own experiences. In his late age, and amidst the serious accusations of his daughter Dylan Farrow, which were brought up again at the movie’s Cannes premiere, Allen’s movies have become increasingly acerbic and urgent. They’ve found new ways of making authenticity and love feel like unlikely gambles for the youthful sentimentalists he’s fond of depicting, good kids living amongst so much glittering junk.
Should this surprise us? This is the guy who once said, in an Esquire interview, that “everything that you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There’ll be nothing.” (Bruh.) Café Society is a tad more muted in its fatalism and, tellingly, less caustic. But it’s nevertheless a Woody Allen movie to the core. It’s a comedy whose lesson is that there’s nothing you can do, no better option left to you by history, other than to go with it, laughing along as you do.