A Review of Cafe Society, Directed by Woody Allen
‘I can’t imagine being larger than life’ - ‘Sure, it’d be fun for a while. I think I’d be happier being life size’.
This is a film that will challenge you, but in the Woody Allen sort of way. It’s light-hearted and self-effacing, but I doubt you’ll laugh out loud; the humour is taciturn, and always curbing the edge of something sadder – something you cannot quite put your finger on. The film opens with a black tie party, filtered through a sleek blue light. It’s quite Luhrmann’s Gatsby in feel. But whereas Gatsby slides off discreetly to take a phone call, Phillip Stern makes an announcement to the group: ‘I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers’. From the outset it forms expectations of what kind of film it is, and what kind of world it’s about: Hollywood and all its beautiful and damned.
Bobby Feingold arrives in Hollywood full of hope. He steps out of a brown car, with a brown bomber jacket, brown tie, brown slacks, brown shoes and suitcases. It’s not the most subtle directorial hint, but that’s the point. From the outset, every character is over emphasised into clear and familiar roles. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the awkward and nerdy newcomer; his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is the successful and ego-driven Hollywood agent; and Veronica ‘Vonnie’ (Kristen Stewart) is the different girl – an antidote to all things Hollywood.
But the characters don’t stand still for long. The first thing to note is the casting, which takes advantage of the actors’ natural dispositions. Jesse Eisenberg has a ‘deer in the headlights’ quality, which is endlessly played upon and contrasted: he is never allowed to remain just a deer in headlights. Steve Carell is naturally brusque and brash, yet he commands with delicacy; in a moment he can turn and betray the saddest looks. Kristen Stewart, too, complicates assumptions. Because her style is so reserved, as she spins in and out of different personalities it’s hard to know which is the true ‘Vonnie’.
The amazing dichotomy of this film is that the characters have all this complexity, but no depth. They remain unreal. These people aren’t familiar – you wouldn’t watch any of them and think, ‘Yes! I know someone just like that!’. The complexity is not their own, but the director’s: he gives nothing away, and in a film that so easily could become a moral exemplum, takes pains not to interfere or tell us what to think and feel.
In fact, Woody Allen does something else. He disturbs our usual patterns of interpretation. Bobby, our moral ballast, tells his family that ‘there’s nothing sexy about a commercial transaction’, and in the next scene he is on the phone ordering a prostitute. But there’s no moment to laugh. We are kept at arm’s length; the revelation is slow, so the humour is restricted. There is no starkness, and we cannot jump in and laugh as we feel we ought to. We remain on our seats, half-expecting, half-anticipating, and slightly unsure of where to go next. In the end, all the action becomes as hard to judge as Kristen Stewart’s face.
This makes it hard to engage with the characters. But this isn’t a criticism. I think it helps to understand what kind of film this is. It doesn’t hold your hand. So many films that try to present superficial and vain society life insist on making the people in it more interesting – more real and more engaging – because of their problems. They pander to an audience’s need for solidity and understanding. What we get here is something different. We do not get vacuous characters who become substantial in our interpretations; we get vacuous characters that remain, in the film, and for our part, vacuous.
This film isn’t easy to love. It does its best to rip a viewer’s nerves to rags. But as it pushes us away from interpretation, and frustrates and teases, we are left with a rawer, immediate impression of disappointment – one that we feel in and for our characters. And all the while Hollywood rages on in the background of the action. But Hollywood isn’t to blame after all. These people become frustratingly and vaguely real – if not reflecting real people, then perhaps moods and attitudes that can, if we aren’t careful, get the better of any of us.
Written by Charlie Child, a Contributor to Arteviste