Somewhere near the end of Woody Allen’s Cafe Society a character quotes Socrates when he utters, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The character then tags the quote by adding, “But the examined one is no bargain.” This morose punchline is one that summarizes Allen’s wit perfectly, and it serves as a fairly accurate depiction of what the characters at the center of his 46th theatrical feature experience.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) has left his family’s business in New York to pursue his dream of striking it big in Los Angeles when Cafe Society begins. He’s enamored by the allure of life in the movie business, and thanks to an uncle (Steve Carrell) in a position of power he soon finds work running errands around town. It’s through this work that he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), an assistant with whom Bobby soon falls in love. The only problem is, Vonnie has a boyfriend, and even after he breaks her heart she cannot cut him out of her life. She grows to love Bobby as well in time, but when her ex forces her to choose, Vonnie sticks with what she’s known.
After learning Vonnie’s decision, Bobby returns to New York in order to help his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stroll), run a burgeoning nightclub. Bobby soon discovers a side of himself he never knew existed, and he begins to flourish as a person. He learns to talk to people, to love another, and how to be a provider for his family, but his long suppressed emotions begin to show once more when Vonnie visits the club with her new husband. Years have passed at this point, but the connection they share feels as fresh as the day they met. Could their love be true? Have they both chosen the wrong person? Allen provides no answers, but he seeks them at every turn.
As the love triangle at the center of Cafe Society begins to reveal itself it’s hard not to not to notice the familiar themes that have become commonplace in Allen’s most recent work. There is unrequited love throughout, and a clear longing for the answers to all of life’s “what ifs” despite the ever-present understanding that such revelations almost never manifest. To say Allen is working within his comfort zone might be an understatement, but he plays every beat with a liveliness that makes resistance next to impossible. You know you shouldn’t be swooned the way you were before because it has all been said and done a few times over, yet you cannot help wanting the characters on screen to find some peace, if only so you can continue to hope for more understanding in your own journey through life.
The performances are strong across the board, but the real beauty of Cafe Society lies in Regina Graves’ set decoration and the cinematography of Vittorio Storaro. Allen’s vision of Hollywood’s golden era—though strictly limited to only what we see on screen—is downright gorgeous. Every shot is littered with eye candy that shines without overpowering the talent on screen. You can feel the warmth of the California sun and the make or break energy of New York City with each passing frame, and you’re left wishing that you could somehow explore it just a bit more.
Allen’s signature snark and neurotic ticks are sprinkled throughout the script with select moments of brilliance. “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” utters Bobby as he and Vonnie begin to fully grasp the reality of their individual situations and the passing of time. It’s a pretty great moment, but it’s one amidst an otherwise average sequence. Another, found earlier in the film, finds Bobby confessing to Vonnie, “I’m half-bored, half-fascinated, but I would trade it all for tacos with you.” Again, pretty great.
With a body of work like Allen’s it is nearly impossible to experience something new without thinking of comparisons to everything he has created prior, and to his credit Cafe Society ultimately fairs far better than 2015’s Irrational Man or 2014’s Magic In The Moonlight. Still, the film lacks the driving emotional core of 2013’s Blue Jasmine and the creative genius of 2011’s Midnight In Paris. Cafe Society will most likely be remembered as a better than average entry in Woody Allen’s later era, but in the grand scheme of his contributions to film it is pretty average. Still, I’d take a pretty average Woody Allen over 90 percent of everything else we see released today.