In Hollywood of the 1930s, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood with big dreams of working with his uncle Phil, who just so happens to be an agent to the stars. Although the dream of riches and fortune don’t come quickly, Bobby soon finds love – albeit unrequited – with his uncle’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who is in a relationship with a man who is already married.
Café Society marks Woody Allen’s second year in a row at the Cannes Film Festival and his third film to officially open the festival. Last year, the director brought Irrational Man to the festival – where it premiered outside of competition – and the same goes this year.
As usual, Woody Allen has lined up an impressive cast, including Corey Stoll, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Ken Stott, Parker Posey, Anna Camp and Jeannie Berlin in small roles, led by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Jesse Eisenberg does his best to make Bobby likeable and sweet, but after an encounter with an inexperienced call girl (Anna Camp), the trademark manic arrogance that the actor brings to much of his work begins to show. Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, manages to leave behind all of the tics and crutches that she developed through the Twilight films, and makes Vonnie engaging and likeable. Stewart lights up the screen each time she appears, and it is when she disappears for a time that the film begins to run out of energy.
Allen’s screenplay for the film has a sweet story at its heart, but it is told in a complicated and tangled way. With Allen himself narrating proceedings, characters and stories jump through time seemingly at will, leaving Allen’s narration to fill in the blanks, and there are so many subplots going on, which could well be stories of their own, it is not long before the characters change so much as to be unrecognisable, and the story becomes bloated. The dialogue for the film is fine – there are plenty of laughs brought by Jeannie Berlin as the overbearing Jewish mother – although there are times when this feels stilted and forced.
As director, Allen once again creates familiar characters on the screen, but there is a dire lack of emotion throughout the film, which means that although characters may state their emotion, it is difficult for the audience to feel this, or engage with it. This means that the film – shot by Vittorio Storaro in his first collaboration with Woody Allen – is visually an Art Deco dream of nostalgia, but ends up feeling rather dull and superficial. Café Society marks the first time that Woody Allen has shot a film on the digital format, which leads to a strange disconnect between the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, and the new technologies emerging today. As well as this, there is an attempt to have the camera gaze on Kristen Stewart the way cameras did on starlets in the 1930s, but this is done in a clunky and obvious way that does not sit well with the rest of the film.
In all, it is great to have Woody Allen back at Cannes but perhaps the prolific director – this is his 47th film at the helm – needs to focus less on quantity and more on quality. The story at the heart of Café Society is a sweet one, but it is never fully explored, and while Kristen Stewart is luminous on screen, the rest of the cast fall into old patterns or, like Blake Lively and Corey Stoll, are criminally underused.