Café Society is an unstructured, unfocused compendium of writer/director Woody Allen’s favorite musings, examinations, and narrative devices. Though consistent in terms of the characters involved, the film freely veers from one thematic subtext to another, so much so that by the end, we’re utterly at a loss to determine whether or not Allen has been making a point or even telling a story. Resist the temptation to argue that the intention was never to make a point or tell a story, that it’s merely a slice of life; given its late-1930s setting and very conscious utilization of Los Angeles and New York locations, Allen has invested in creating an atmosphere too deeply for it all to be meaningless. I think he was simply so adrift in his thoughts that he forgot to apply them to a cohesive plot.
The film is loosely divided into unofficial sections, each of which aims for a different narrative emphasis. In other words, every time we think we know what the film is about, it shifts gears and becomes about something else entirely. It tries to be about everything, and as a result, it ends up being about nothing. When the film begins, we’re led to believe that, like Annie Hall and Hollywood Ending, Allen will be giving voice to his jaundiced perception of Hollywood and celebrity culture – while simultaneously and paradoxically showing reverence for the films and movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The central character is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who has left New York City for Los Angeles; he becomes a gofer for his uncle, a real busybody Hollywood agent (Steve Carell), and is soon rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.
But then, just like that, the plot shifts focus, playing like Allen trying to process his very public and very messy breakup with Mia Farrow and subsequent marriage to her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Bobby has fallen in love with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a midwesterner and seemingly the only girl in Hollywood who doesn’t buy into the phony glitz and glamor of the celebrity scene. The problem is, the uncle has been having an affair with Vonnie for over a year; he has, in fact, made numerous attempts to call it quits with his wife, just so that he and Vonnie can finally marry. Naturally, Vonnie is torn over which man she loves more.
The plot focus shifts yet again when Bobby, having grown disillusioned with Hollywood – and having been slighted in way that, of course, I won’t reveal – returns to New York and begins working for his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who runs a nightclub. So here we think the film is playing off of the Hollywood dissing, as if to say that you can take the boy out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the boy. But maybe not; Bobby’s reputation with the wealthy patrons of the club grows considerably, which is to say he’s becoming a big shot with the kind of people who, like their Los Angeles counterparts, gossip, namedrop, and endlessly talk about business. I grant you it’s not showbusiness, but the way I see it, business talk is business talk.
Now I have to get increasingly vague with my words. Once again, the focus shifts when a seemingly forgotten chapter of Bobby’s past returns. And of course, matters are complicated by the life Bobby is currently leading. Just when we think Allen is making his film about the perpetual longing for that which we don’t have, which would make it similar to his own Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a unrelated subplot involving Bobby’s extended family becomes so intertwined that the message becomes hopelessly confused. Without delving into specifics, it involves Bobby’s sister (Sari Lennick) and her intellectual husband (Stephen Kunken), and Allen works in several of his many examinations in one fell swoop, including morality, grappling with guilt, the emotional need for belief when the logical mind resists it, and the tragedy of one’s mortality.
Several years ago, a two-part documentary about Allen’s life and films aired on PBS. In it, he stated how he has never suffered from writer’s block. Speaking as someone who has repeatedly fought bouts of writer’s block, I wonder if this can sometimes be more of a curse than a blessing; without that struggle for the right words, without that creative filter that forces one to cast doubt on structure and theme, without that sense that there’s always room for improvement, your writing is likely to come off as articulate rambling. With films like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, To Rome with Love, and now with Café Society, Allen’s lack of focus is evident. It’s all over the map – not a story so much as a compilation of story ideas.