Woody Allen haters, whether for his personal life or his professional output, need only look at the basic plot summary of “Café Society” to turn themselves away. On its face, the film repackages one of the most unfortunate clichés propagated by his body of work.
This, of course, is the doomed love triangle where a young, sexually blooming woman is courted by two men; one is an older and more distinguished gentleman, while the other is a younger but more intellectually and romantically capable match. Such a formation often seems like Allen wants to have it both ways, where his older and younger personas form a kind of sexual yin and yang.
This risible, repetitive plot invention looms over “Café Society,” imbuing every gorgeous frame from Vittorio Storraro’s lens with a faint stench of retrograde gender politics. In that way, the film plays a role similar to that friend you know has substance issues but dispenses valuable nuggets of drunk wisdom.
Look past the love triangle and beyond the outmoded attitudes, and “Café Society” marks Woody Allen at peak nostalgic autobiography. A few of the bad elements are here, sure, but much of the beauty and torment that marks Allen’s best work is present as well. From his culturally Jewish upbringing to his loathing of Hollywood and even his bleakly optimistic outlook on life, the film feels somewhat akin to a superhero origin story.
Often times, “Café Society” plays like a filmic synecdoche. In this extended figure of speech, the West Coast represents a hollow culture of scenesterism where even family members cannot be fully trusted. When the green New York boy Bobby Dorfman (Allen surrogate du jour Jesse Eisenberg) heads to Hollywood in the golden era of the studios, he encounters a sumptuous world of glamor and elegance thanks to the tutelage of his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a Depression-era Ari Gold. Uncle Phil also introduces Bobby to the beguiling Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), whose big aspirations but tentative spirit come to encapsulate his feelings for the City of Angels altogether.
But this world of “Technicolor in reality,” as Woody Allen’s narration so beautifully puts it, becomes exposed for the unobtainable irony that such a statement suggests. Unexpected developments send Bobby back home to New York, where he finds support from his wacky assortment of close relatives who run the gamut from idealistic communist all the way to brutal gangster. Though this town is one of dimly-lit shadows and the near constant intrusion of family, it captures his heart in a way that Vonnie cannot.
This honest realization feels like one of Allen’s most earnest since “Annie Hall,” where he came to a similar conclusion that a New York/Los Angeles couple coexisting was little more than a pleasant fantasy. This mature moment of introspection might be easy to miss given that it hides behind an a boyish narrative fabrication. Those willing to peer behind the curtain will find Allen operating in his signature bittersweet register, cranking out a tune we might have heard before, and delivering it with sincerity. B+ /