“Cafe Society” is Woody Allen’s 40th installment in what is likely the longest streak of annual movie releases by a single writer and director in all of Hollywood. The ease and style with which Allen pulls off “Cafe Society” is truly a reflection of his immense experience and prolific career.
The film covers ground on several ideas, but it is ultimately about the confusion of love, the dangers of ambition and the difficulty of integrity — issues that are explored by well-defined and likable characters. Jesse Eisenberg of “The Social Network” fame plays our protagonist Bobby Dorfman. Eisenberg’s performance, though not remarkable by any stretch, is both solid and charming. In fact, Cafe Society as a whole is both solid and charming — no more, no less.
Dorfman, a young man with dreams of making it big in 1930s Hollywood, falls in love as soon as he arrives in Los Angeles; and with the secretary of his bigwig movie executive Uncle Phil of all people. Dorfman and his love interest Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) quickly become serious and plan to return to Dorfman’s hometown Brooklyn and get married, but when Vonnie gets cold feet and decides to marry another man, Dorfman returns to Brooklyn heartbroken.
Not one to sulk, Dorfman promptly opens a swanky and massively popular club with his brother, Ben, who happens to be a mob boss in the heart of Brooklyn. Dorfman’s ambition is an undercurrent throughout the entire film, and we see it transform him from a big-eyed dreamer in Hollywood to a competent businessman in New York City. It’s a subtle statement on how circumstances can change and challenge people to grow.
But when Dorfman gets married to the kind of woman that every man dreams about, Vonnie walks back into his life and raises the question of whether or not people can stay true to their personal growth. Their love interest is rekindled and Dorfman has to make decisions about whether he should stay with his perfect wife or return to his first love. Meanwhile, Vonnie becomes the very person she swore she would never become during the time that they were separated and the integrity of their relationship is challenged. The same is true for Ben when the law finally catches up with him. Ben abandons his Jewish faith in favor for Catholicism at the drop of a hat upon learning that he’s going to the electric chair for numerous counts of murder, racketeering and other serious criminal charges.
The decision was a simple one for Ben — Christianity offers an afterlife, Judaism doesn’t. This is perhaps the core issue at stake for Bobby Dorfman, his lovers and his ambition — should one do what’s right, or what feels good?
In the end, Allen never answers this question. He laughs it off with jokes about apostasy and favors lush production value over exploring the important questions he raises. That’s a huge part of what makes “Cafe Society” charming, though — it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It makes us laugh and immerses us in both Hollywood and New York and makes us feel like part of the in-crowd that was famous for its ambition, romance and lack of integrity.