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Courtesy of Lionsgate

September 22, 2016

Café Society Is Short and a Little Too Sweet

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Woody Allen’s latest film, Café Society stars Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx native trying out Hollywood for the first time under the wing of his uncle, prominent film executive Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Bobby begins working for his uncle and meets members of the 1930s Hollywood elite. Along the way he falls in love with the cool and refreshing Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), his uncle’s secretary. Vonnie appears to reject the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but when we learn she is having an affair with Bobby’s uncle, it becomes apparent that she wants to be a part of “Café Society” just as much as anyone else. Their complicated romance has a lasting effect on Bobby, and shapes the rest of his journey throughout the film.

The film, the first of Allen’s to be shot on digital cameras, opened the Cannes Film Festival this summer. It was lauded for its crisp, classic visuals and snappy writing, but I wouldn’t say it was one of Woody Allen’s best works. As usual, Allen has employed a star studded cast, this time including Stewart, Carell and Blake Lively. Stewart’s role as a 1930s “hipster” was fitting with her characteristically emotionless persona. However, I feel that her portrayal of the character brought me out of the 1930s and right back to present day. The same could be said of Steve Carell’s performance. I understand the The Office star is transitioning into dramatic roles, but his performance kept me waiting for a punchline that never arrived.

Jesse Eisenberg performed well as the young, naïve Bobby Dorfman trying to navigate through an unfamiliar city. Together, he and Kristen Stewart were naturals on screen and complimented each other’s performances. As Bobby, Eisenberg is portrayed as a bit of a dreamer, and definitely more confident than many of his nerdier roles. Though his confidence in romantic encounters could be taken as a bit pushy and at times made him insufferable, that was no fault of the actor.

The writing in this film, much like every other aspect of it, was exactly what you would expect from a film glorifying 1930s Hollywood. Characters were either dreamy and detached, or booming and larger than life. If the scenery wasn’t a dead giveaway, I truly understood what kind of movie this was when Bobby proposed running back to New York with Vonnie to get married and said: “I can’t promise we’d be rich, but we’d have each other.” Ah, yes. They would escape to Greenwich to live among the painters and the poets.

Though Café Society relies heavily on nostalgia to tell a concise and predictable romantic story, it was still fun to watch — or I should say — it was still pleasing to the eyes. Every scene of Café Society was vivid, bathed in dramatic color and lighting. The costumes were fitting for each character, and despite the performances of some of the cast, the environment makes the film immersive and helps viewers connect to the story. Everything, all the way down to the actors (though extremely lacking in diversity), was aesthetically pleasing.

Eisenberg, Stewart and Carell certainly make for a big-name cast, but in true Woody Allen fashion, people of color were not well represented at all. I understand that this film is based in the 1930s, but with jazz and name-dropping being such a huge part of this film, I would have expected some performers of color to at least be mentioned. Instead, I spotted at least one black clubgoer, and an African-American maid. The reality is, Café Society tells the story of white Hollywood, which might alienate some members of the audience. I respect that Woody Allen doesn’t fall into tokenism and put actors of color into a film just to stop people like me from writing about it. However, what I would respect even more was if he portrayed the world realistically, showing the true diversity of LA and New York in the 1930s.
Café Society is a film that looks at 1930s Hollywood and represents 1930s Hollywood in itself. The film is mostly glitz and glamour, and while the visuals did keep me captivated, under the hood it is a lukewarm romantic film.

Lolia Briggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at lib8@cornell.edu. 

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