Here’s the second of two movies in one week because I basically forgot to redeem my final two free visits to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse and I didn’t want to lose them before my “Friends” year ends. The first was The Shallows, not perhaps an obvious choice for us, but exciting to watch and it hugely exceeded our expectations. Again, I’m not sure if Café Society is a film I would have otherwise chosen to see, but it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve seen a Woody Allen film and so this was a good opportunity to put that right.
I was a big admirer of Mr Allen in my youth. As a way-ahead-of-my-time youngster in the 1960s, I loved the trendy glamour of What’s New Pussycat and the trendy slapstick of Casino Royale, which was one of the first films the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see at the cinema. I adored Annie Hall and was moved by Manhattan, enjoyed Zelig and took the young Miss Duncansby – before she became Mrs Chrisparkle – to see Hannah and her Sisters. But I don’t think the young Miss D was anything like as keen on Woody Allen as I was. And consequently I think that might have been the last time I saw one of his films!
It’s a relatively simple and agreeable tale of Bobby, a young Jewish guy, who leaves New York to try to find some kind of fame and fortune in Hollywood, spurred on by the fact that his uncle is a massively successful agent, on whose coat-tails he hopes to ride for a bit, to get some contacts and make a life for himself. The uncle’s secretary, Vonnie, is tasked with the job of showing Bobby around the town, and, being a Woody Allen film, Bobby falls in love with her. However – naturally – she has a boyfriend. Relationships come and go – the secretary falls in and out of love with both Bobby and her boyfriend, and, several years later, both Bobby and Vonnie are married – although not to each other – and an uncertain ending leaves you hanging as to how things might get resolved – or not.
It’s a very enjoyable film, although, despite the relationship difficulties depicted and the personal sadness experienced by some of the characters, not remotely challenging. I thought more could have been made of the difference between Bobby’s tough working class NYC home life and the glitzy glamour of his Californian Lifestyle, but I guess that wasn’t the film Woody Allen wanted to make. Cinematographically, it looks lush throughout, although a tendency to over-sepia-ise some of the scenes (presumably to help with setting the 1930s vibe) got on my nerves a bit once I had identified why everything was appearing so orangey. There’s a very classy jazz soundtrack – primarily, but not exclusively, piano – which really nails the vibe, even though it was a little repetitive for Mrs C’s taste.
It’s 1930s New York, so there has to be a gangster – and he comes in the form of Bobby’s brother Ben, ostensibly a decent family man but with a predilection for handing out summary executions with comedic brevity. Bobby’s background family are very credibly realised, with a fine pair of performances from Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as his rather downbeat parents – think Caroline Aherne’s The Royle Family set in the Bronx. And there’s a hilarious scene early on with a beautiful cameo performance by Anna Camp as the willing but rather unprofessional prostitute Candy, that gives you an excellent insight into both the irascible side of Bobby’s character and the shallowness of the Californian way of life.
But the film succeeds most in telling the general awkwardness of the ménage à trois that is Bobby, Vonnie and her boyfriend, “Doug”. (He’s not really Doug.) Kristen Stewart gives a really thoughtful performance as Vonnie, totally Torn Between Two Lovers as the old song goes, trapping her whirlwind of emotions beneath a calm façade that never takes anything for granted or even insists on being treated fairly. Steve Carell gives a good performance as the spoilt and over-successful agent Phil, flourishing under professional pressure but falling apart when it comes to personal relationships. And Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the gently neurotic, sexually confident and eventually nightclub owning Bobby, in a role that – having missed out on seeing Woody Allen’s gradual development throughout the decades – I see as being precisely the same kind of role that Mr Allen would have written for himself back in the 70s. Talking of which, I only realised afterwards, when doing a little research before writing this post, that Woody Allen is the narrator of the film. I certainly didn’t recognise his voice. But he does a good job, with some nice levels of understatement and comic timing.
This isn’t a film that’s going to shake the world, but as a gentle and attractive snapshot of America in the 30s, it’s 96 minutes spent in the company of entertaining characters in a privileged environment that balances fantasy with reality – and comes down on the side of a comfy cushion somewhere between the two.