Cafe Society, written and directed by Woody Allen, is more of an experience than a film.
Bobby, a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who has just moved to Hollywood to work for his uncle (Steve Carell), falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), a beautiful young woman who is in love with someone else. Although they do end up together briefly, Vonnie doesn’t stay with Bobby and decides to marry her first love. Bobby, brokenhearted and disillusioned with Hollywood’s glamor, moves back to his hometown, New York City, where he meets the stunningly beautiful Veronica (Blake Lively). There, he runs a nightclub with his gangster brother and mingles with the rich and famous, living out a more sophisticated version of what his life in Hollywood could have been. That’s the plot, but that isn’t really what makes this movie worth seeing. Sure, there’s enough drama to pack some flavor into the film, but the real joy of Cafe Society is how it envelops the viewer in a rich and beautiful daydream of the 1930s.
The soundtrack was one of my favorite parts of the film, near constant jazz that overlaid both the mundane and the romantic. At times, the soundtrack was so well paired with a scene it seemed to encapsulate that moment’s feeling. For example, at one point, Bobby and Vonnie are standing on a bridge in Central Park as the sun comes up, sharing a touching moment after staying out all night—the score perfectly complemented the beauty and the bittersweetness of that moment. Outside of those well-placed moments, the soundtrack also cleverly worked as both a score that the audience hears and diegetic music that is being played in the film. Bobby puts on a record before a dinner in, and we’re taken along for the ride. A nightclub singer melts into the soundtrack. For a film that was not about music or musicians, the mingling of sounds played well and worked to pull the viewer into the world of the film.
Another element that sets the film apart was the costuming. From the delicate, tailored dresses that Vonnie wears, to the cable-knit, mustard yellow vest that Bobby sports on his first day at the office, to the flowing gowns that Veronica catches Bobby’s eye in, the clothes were stunning. The wardrobe of Vonnie, especially, was well done. At the beginning, her clothes are plain and a little rebellious, moving towards more elegant pieces as she grows older. The way that the costuming followed development was crucial, given that this film covered many years in the lives of these characters. They remained pitch perfect throughout, for not only Vonnie but all characters. Another thing I particularly appreciated about the costuming was that the pieces genuinely looked like vintage clothing, and not like a replica sewn specifically for the film. That attention to detail allowed the viewer to be transported back in time and immersed in Bobby’s world.
The last element that took the film over the top from just another love story to a true experience was the coloring. I’ve talked about coloring before, and this film constantly shaded scenes to enhance the emotions of the film. Hollywood is lush and saturated, recalling a vintage postcard of Monaco or the Italian coast. But at some times, the golden tones became overwhelming, almost too rich—like the people in Hollywood that Bobby dislikes. Bobby’s family back in New York are a little duller, grayed out as they live their unremarkable lives. The nightclub’s colors are deep and velvety, drawing attention to the opulence of the scenes and the splendor within. This instance on setting the scene visually and shifting the essence of each place in the film was a smart move that helped bring the viewer through the film’s emotional journey.
I would be remiss in writing about this film if I didn’t note that the film is overwhelmingly white, a frequent problem with Allen’s work. While this whiteness may accurately reflect the exclusive Hollywood C-suite brunches of the 1930s, once the film shifts focus to the era’s jazz and nightclub scene, which offered plenty of diversity, a more varied cast would’ve greatly added to the dynamic settings already in play, especially when Bobby moves back to New York.
Cafe Society isn’t a film that challenges or dazzles in its thematic content. But what it lacks in scripted oomph, it more than makes up for in intricate and textured world-building. It’s a lovely film and is sure to let you sit back, relax and be enveloped by a romanticized version of life in the 1930s, and all the jazz that comes with it.