2016 is starting to shape up as the year of the love letter to Hollywood’s Golden Age. We started the year with the Coen Brothers’s “Hail Caesar!,” a kidnapping comedy set in a fictional fifties studio with million-dollar mermaids, crooning cowboys and blacklisted commie screenwriters. Still to come is Damien Chazelle’s musical “La La Land” with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Stuck in the middle is Woody Allen’s Hollywood love triangle “Café Society.”
When it comes to Allen, I’ve been lucky lately. He releases a film every year of wildly varying quality, and I seem to luck out and show up for the good ones.
Here, Jesse Eisenberg, the most natural Allen avatar in forever, plays a young Jewish man from a very ethnic New York family who moves to Los Angeles to work for his Hollywood superagent uncle (Steve Carell). He quickly falls in love with his uncle’s lively secretary (Kristen Stewart), but she has a guy, a wealthy one, who might or might not ditch his wife. After some time, Bobby hops back to New York, gets married, and runs a zippy nightclub owned by his mobster brother (indispensable Allen regular Corey Stoll), whose business runs the gamut from dancing feet to cement feet. Naturally, out of every juke joint in the world, at some point she has to walk into his.
Allen’s work in recent years (and by that I mean twenty-five) has been defensive. There’s been the whiff–something more than a whiff–of apologia. If you fall into love with your wife’s daughter, what can you do? It’s the randomness of the universe! Luckily, “Café Society” plays with the same ideas about love and fate and timing without the defense attorney mentality. It play gently in the background as Allen gives the characters space for their own say.
“Gently” is a great word for “Cafe Society.” The thing that I kept thinking was how cleanly and smoothly and softly the several storylines come together. It’s one thing to be a great writer in the sense of coming up with funny things to say, and certainly Allen has never struggled for that ability. But in addition here, you see these strands moving in their own place and then slowly, smartly reassembling. And you want them to. You want these characters and stories to move toward each other.
Everything is working toward that moment late in the film. It’s also unusual for a film, nowadays at least, to have so many likable characters who stay interesting. Movies today are inundated with anti-heroism. Anti-heroes have natural conflict, so they are easy to write and film. So it’s a little refreshing and quietly challenging that “Café Society” builds around natural people-pleasers – an agent, a nightclub owner and a sweet secretary, who make their living by making other people happy.
But the most impressive thing (other than cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s still-stunning talent) is the way it ends. I won’t go into it in too much detail. But it reminds me greatly of the ending of Wong Kar-Wai’s fantastic “In the Mood of Love,” a movie about the lingering power and melancholy of a romance that never quite comes to pass. There were a hundred ways to end “Café Society” conventionally, and old Allen might have done it with some smug comic trick. At eighty it’s always great that a person can learn new things.
“Cafe society” was first seen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it had its world premiere.