On the phone, Bobby’s relative calls to ask if he’s bored of Hollywood already. Bobby responds, ‘I’m kind of half bored, half fascinated’. That is perhaps how I felt watching Café Society.
The tale follows Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who unsurprisingly comes from a Jewish family residing in New York City. Wanting more from life than just working for his father, he moves to Hollywood to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a talent agent in show business. Here Bobby falls for Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), attracted to her down-to-earth nature amidst the fakery and pretentiousness of Hollywood. Unbeknown to Bobby, Vonnie is already in a relationship with someone very close to him. Thus proceeds this story of love, loss and longing from coast to coast, all set against the backdrop of an era of celebrity and excess narrated every now and again by the voice of director Woody Allen.
A major issue with Café Society is that it is underwhelming in more than one aspect, despite having great potential. For instance, the subjects of the film. The likeability of most characters was lost on me, perhaps because their individual personalities were at large. The appeal of Vonnie, what sets her apart from ‘other girls’, is apparently that she doesn’t fit the stereotypes of women from Hollywood. Was she funny, smart, intriguing? Who knows. She is defined by what she is not. And whilst Vonnie lacks definition, the design of Bobby’s character seems to just be confused. For instance, there was a bizarre scene wherein he calls for a prostitute but then, upon finding out this is her first time, asks her to leave in Woody Allen-esque jittery one liners. Following this scene, these physical and vocal characteristics never return. Eisenberg more or less did a (in fairness, quite good) Woody Allen impression for one scene, then returned to his normal acting thereafter. Bobby wasn’t presented as neurotic or witty in any other instance of the film, but if he was then at least his character would’ve had some sort of substance. Both main characters should have been interesting as they both have access on the peripheries of high society, but just turn out to be rather bland. The additional love interests were also underdeveloped, to the point that I couldn’t decide whether Vonnie and Bobby should be together or see other people as they all seemed equally ‘okay’ (little investment in the love story itself is garnered as it just becomes repetitive and drags on well after the audience has already predicted the fate of the relationship anyway). The more interesting characters were Bobby’s eccentric family members back in New York who were unfortunately underused, only making appearances to enable a few Jewish culture jokes and serve as plot devices.
The humour of the film was, in a way, also underwhelming to some extent. The film seemed too concerned with taking this safe middle-ground on the high class subjects of the film to want to satirise them in dialogue. I understand that the film does wish to pay homage to the era, and as such takes a more sympathetic stance towards the elite. However, Allen could have gone the way of The Purple Rose of Cairo, which wonderfully achieved historical authenticity and showed heartfelt admiration for 1930’s cinema whilst still satirising the tropes of it and the era itself.
The film’s reluctance to make jokes about the obvious leads me to think: perhaps Café Society is generally underwhelming because it has nothing to say. Allen’s narration introduces a collection of the most beautiful and wealthy celebrities, his knowing voice setting up the latter half of the film up for excitement and interesting complications to Vonnie and Bobby’s lives. And yet, nothing particularly amazing happens. There are just a lot of forgettable conversations taking place in an elegant club with jazz playing and drinks flowing. No comment is made on this lifestyle of the privileged either, there is no dissection of what this lifestyle really is – we are only exposed to it to a very basic degree. Whilst the narration promised an exciting peek into this exclusive society, there seems to be no reason for wanting a glimpse in the first place anyway. The characters themselves, such as Blake Lively’s Veronica who comes between the central relationship, are uninteresting. They aren’t wild, they aren’t subversive, they aren’t villainous nor better suited love interests. They just exist in this described social circle which, once shown to us, turns out to not be that fascinating.
Café Society is a good looking, funny enough film about the social elite, the East and West coasts of 1930’s America, family relations and what could be true love – it is a shame then, that Allen found nothing interesting to say about any of it. It is for this reason that there may be no point in watching the film at all, despite it being entirely watchable.