★ ★ ★
It took 39 years, but maybe Woody Allen has finally warmed to Los Angeles. The city he once painted as a sun-blasted cultural cesspool in Annie Hall is depicted in his latest movie as an elegant fantasy: It’s a place where a transplanted New York Jew like Phil Stern (Steve Carell) can shrug off the Old World and slip into a dry martini at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills, and where said bash features guests who look smashing in white and no one falls into the pool. Of course, >Café Society is set in the 1930s, which may explain why the director who made Radio Days, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris, and Sweet and Lowdown is holding back his teeth-gnashing ire. Nothing’s really ugly in the past.
In this retro tale, Phil gets a phone call from his East Coast nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), who needs a job out west. Phil gives him a position at his talent agency, but first, he has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show him the sights. She drives him around to movie-star homes and takes him out for tacos and beer. A whisper of her bra is visible underneath her summer-in-January crop top, and we can see it because Bobby sees it too. If only she wasn’t already dating a journalist. If only things in Hollywood were exactly as glamorous as they seem.
Café Society is rapturously gorgeous, a lavish dream of 1930s Tinseltown breathed into life by perennial Allen production designer Santo Loquasto and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, the latter well-known for lensing Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor. (He also did Ishtar, but on the basis of this voluptuous confection, maybe that legendary bomb deserves a second look.) Los Angeles is bathed in peach-gold sunlight and New York is painted in a cozy, rainy-day palette of sepia and Payne’s gray. Every stitch of clothing and splinter of furniture is era-correct, outshining other Hollywood period pieces like Trumbo and Barton Fink. (The only anachronism is when a character declares that she doesn’t have “an addictive personality.”) And there are many moments of tender, delicate pathos as sublime as the settings they inhabit. Shame that this nostalgic delight is shaded by such an ugly cloud.
If it isn’t the gross impropriety of his affair and subsequent marriage to stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, it’s Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow’s candid New York Times op-ed in which she accused him of molesting her as a child, and condemned the A-list actors who continue to work with him (which presumably applies to this movie’s top-notch cast, too). It’s unprofessional for a film critic to conflate the artist with his work or to review a director’s personal life instead of what’s onscreen, but the miasma of Allen’s scandalous history requires the willful tunnel vision of a restaurant critic discerning the risotto’s flavor while ignoring the rats under the table.
Setting moral outrage to the side, it is necessary and fair to view a prolific director’s latest movie through the lens of his entire oeuvre, and unfortunately, there’s nothing new here. Nostalgia; jazz; prostitutes; a besotted love of New York; quarreling and kibitzing parents; the moral wiggle room of a godless world; winsome, slim-limbed ingénues; and a nebbishy, whiny, wry pseudo-narrator as the surrogate lead—haven’t we gone over this before? These motifs aren’t getting sweeter with age, that’s for sure. If Café Society was a young director’s first film instead of an aging director’s 47th, it might have been something superior. But unlike Vonnie, the picture is very beautiful yet nothing special.