Cafe Society feels like Woody Allen’s final film. It’s nostalgic, grand, it borrows familiar Allen-isms and I just watched 45+ Woody Allen films in a month and a half, so it feels like something has ended, now that I’m caught up.
No one Woody Allen film as ever looked like this one. The cinematography stretches reality as every image is sharp, bright and appropriate. Every image is beautiful, and it shows a world that is lit like films of the golden age of Hollywood. This world of the movie (Hollywood and New York) seen as off limits to many people. It’s what Hollywood must’ve felt like to someone from a thousand miles away. There are the large homes of the famous actors, the parties of the film executives and finally an elaborate night club in New York that looks like something out of a Baz Luhrmann film.
So the setting feels different, but the movie is like Radio Days (1987) in that it is about a time period more than any place or character. You have films like Manhattan and Midnight in Paris that are about places, but this is about time. Radio Days is about the same time period, only it centers on a family life that must have felt very familiar to Woody Allen. He narrates both that film and this one, like a man reflecting on a period of his life. The difference with Cafe Society, however, is it’s a world Allen might’ve looked up to rather than one he actually lived in.
But in Cafe Society we also see the people behind the magic. We focus on Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) as he moves to Los Angeles and tries to get work from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who runs his own movie studio. Phil has a lot of power, but he’s not all that connected to the family. He ignores Bobby for a while, and though he does help him out, he always feels a little distant. Bobby is just another chore.
Phil instructs his secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby around town, and Bobby falls in love with her because he doesn’t realize she’s having an affair with Phil. The reveal that Veronica is dating Phil occurs pretty early on to the audience, way before Bobby knows about it. It makes that part of the film feel much more comic, with Bobby stuck in a losing situation without realizing it. His earnest plays for her affection come across as futile based on what we know.
But then Phil decides he can’t leave his wife, so he breaks it off with Veronica. This pushes her into Bobby’s arms, and they fall in love. Tired of Los Angeles, Bobby tries to convince her to come back to New York with him. Soon after Bobby learns of her relationship with Phil, and when Phil finally decides to leave his wife, he asks her to marry him. After being momentarily paralyzed by two marriage proposals, Veronica decides to marry Phil.
Bobby returns to New York for the second half of the film, working at a nightclub with his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a mobster. Bobby enjoys the night life, and the club thrives with all kinds of upper class people. Bobby regards the aura of the place highly like he did with Hollywood, but the magic doesn’t wear off. Instead he gets more responsibility in the club and everyone knows him. He becomes a local legend, at least within the night club.
Along the way he meets another woman named Veronica, played by Blake Lively. They seem to fall into love, or something like it, and they get married quickly, after she reveals she’s pregnant. We learn about the second Veronica after Bobby has already married her, throwing her into the story suddenly and without an opportunity for the audience to get to know her. We do get to know her afterwards, but this quick introduction helps maintain a distance between us and her so that our affections are meant to lean towards the first Veronica, whom Bobby later says he has never forgotten.
One night Phil and Veronica #1 show up at the night club, and Bobby briefly reignites his fling with her. They both love each other, they say, and they experience their own magic, one more exciting than the allure of Hollywood and New York night life but also much quieter. In other words it feels real.
They know they can’t stay together, so they go their own way, ultimately. Veronica #2 asks Bobby if he’s ever cheated on her, and he insists he hasn’t. We saw him kiss Veronica #1, but we never did see them go to bed, implying there may be some truth to what he says. Having Bobby not sleep with Veronica #1 is kind of nice, because every Woody Allen movie seems to feature an affair. It’s kind of magical that we don’t see them sleep together after Bobby’s marriage to Veronica #2.
The film ends with the night club bringing in the New Year, the same way Radio Days came to a close. In Radio Days, a couple of the characters speculated on their place in the world, such as whether they be remember years from now.
At the end of Cafe Society, someone quotes Socrates who said “an unexamined life is not worth living” and that could be a thesis of Woody Allen’s work.
I can see what Allen was going for in this film, and maybe it’s because I’ve become over-saturated in his works, but Bobby’s and Veronica #1’s relationship didn’t seem as important as it was meant to seem. I feel like the story jumped around a little bit, and that gave it a light-hearted tone, but suddenly the film felt like it wanted to imbue that relationship with real heart. Except that relationship doesn’t even feel like the heart of the movie. It’s more about the worlds Bobby drifts into, and the people he observes. It’s like he doesn’t really belong in any of these worlds, so Veronica #1 represents a breath of fresh air, yet Bobby does seem to thrive in the night life. Maybe it can be read as him becoming a staple of a world he never saw himself in. He still sees himself as an outsider, but he’s not one anymore. Veronica #1 reminds him of where he came from and the wide-eyed kid he once was.
A lot of people probably feel that way, like they don’t belong somewhere even though from the outside they probably blend right in. It’s like any group of people is really just a collection of outsiders. I want to broaden this to make a bigger point, but I don’t know what that point is.
This was a nice film, and it became a lot more sentimental than I expected, but I also don’t quite think it helped the film at all. I also don’t think it hurt the film, it’s just sort of there. Maybe that’s because I liked Veronica #2. We didn’t get to know her as well as Veronica #1, but she’s wonderful, and she seems perfect for Bobby or for anyone.
The story is also about family. We meet Bobby’s family (brother, sister, parents, uncle Phil), and they seem incredibly close. They are a tight knit family that at first appears to contrast with the much more surface-level relationships of the people in Hollywood. Yet even at the end Phil doesn’t seem so bad. He tells Bobby he’s proud of him, and while Bobby doesn’t seem to notice or care (because he’s so lost in Veronica #1’s eyes), the audience notices. Phil isn’t the bad guy. Sure he had an affair, and that’s bad, but Phil is never evil. He’s a little gross, though.
And Bobby makes a family at the nightclub. People know and love him, and he comes to life in that environment. In this movie people find their group or any group and find a way to live with them. Everyone celebrates, maybe a little too much. People are constantly drinking and having a grand time, but in a world that makes no sense that might not be such a bad thing, at least from the perspective of someone who loves but also misunderstands Nietzsche.
I guess that’s kind of what this film is: there are a bunch of rich people who quote ancient philosophers in order to justify their partying ways. I still don’t know where Bobby fits into this, because he seems to be above it or at least outside of it. He’s upper class adjacent.
The film ends with the camera below and behind Bobby, looking up at him like he’s a powerful man as he takes in the new year. It’s empowering, and it suggests a character who has certainly grown. Bobby is no longer the nervous kid who arrives in Hollywood a stranger to everyone. Now people know him, he’s a man and he has power of some kind, at least enough to feel empowered.