“Cafe Society” is such a sweetly satisfying and visually beautiful tale from 80-year-old Woody Allen that I feel terrible telling you how much greater a film might have been made that took its title seriously.
There was a very real Cafe Society in Manhattan – a nightclub owned by Barney Josephson that opened in Sheridan Square in 1938 and was the first nightclub in America to play for integrated audiences. As was often observed, even at the Cotton Club – which Duke Ellington’s music made famous – Duke’s own mother wouldn’t have been allowed a table to watch her own son and his band perform.
Josephson’s Cafe Society Club not only magnificently changed all that, it gave Billie Holiday the perfect place to sing one of the most revolutionary songs in all of American music, “Strange Fruit.” Josephson’s rule for Holiday’s performances of the song in his club were severe. Lights were to be dimmed, waiters were to stop serving and it was always to be the last music heard when it was performed.
A film about that might have been one of the great American movies. That it isn’t, but that it steals the name of Josephson’s club reaffirms an old Allen problem – the avoidance of African-American life in his movies.
A sophisticated Manhattan nightclub figures prominently in the tale of “Cafe Society” but it bears no resemblance to Josephson’s legendary, culture-changing place. It is full of rich, well-dressed white people leading a decorative high life. Only the name of Josephson’s club was of interest to Allen.
It’s the club, in the movie, operated by two brothers – a gangster played by Cory Stoll and an appealing young tyro played by Jesse Eisenberg, doing very nicely in a young Allen part. (Played, you remember, in other movies by actors as disparate as John Cusack and Kenneth Branagh.)
The tale begins with the young kid going to Hollywood in the 1930s, getting a high-end gopher job with his name-dropping agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and romancing the secretary in Uncle Phil’s office (Kristen Stewart) who is secretly the love of Uncle Phil’s life. Romantic disappointment sends him back to Manhattan to go into business with his gangster brother.
Old hands at Allen movies know the following: he seems to have a Big Table/Kid’s Table vision of the place of comedians in the American cultural world. As a result, his films are constantly very personal comedy pastiches of cultural landmarks. “Interiors” was his Ingmar Bergman movie, “Stardust Memories,” his Fellini movie, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” his Dostoevsky movie, “Blue Jasmine” his Tennessee Williams movie.
“Cafe Society” is his F. Scott Fitzgerald movie. He narrates it and, as you listen, you can hear his attempt at a kind of Fitzgerald tone about 1920s and ’30s high-life. Unfortunately, at its worst, the tone slips into soap opera meets Walter Winchell. (Which, all things considered, isn’t that ridiculous for some of Fitzgerald’s worst stories for the Saturday Evening Post.)
But the movie can be very funny and is very brisk and entertaining. Best of all it is magnificently photographed by one of the great living cinematographers, Vittorio Storaro, cinematographer of great Bertolucci movies (“The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris”) as well as “Apocalypse, Now” and Warren Beatty’s “Reds.”
Which might lead to one obvious speculation for some of us who commonly see Allen movies as weirdly skewed fantasies from his own biography.
Could this whole tale of a young, nerdy New Yorker in secret conflict over a woman with a sophisticated, omni-connected Angeleno, be Allen’s Fitzgeraldian fantasy about his relationship with Diane Keaton just before she went off with consummate Hollywood politician Warren Beatty to make “Reds”?
I offer that for all confirmed Woodyites to chew on.
For everyone else, this isn’t a great Allen movie, as “Blue Jasmine” was, but it’s one of his sweeter, more romantic and more affecting recent ones in its gentle rue. It’s better than some of his more “important” movies. It would be enjoyably minor except for one thing: the presence of Storaro’s work makes “Cafe Society” one of the most cinematically beautiful films he’s ever made.
He and Beatty once shared a woman. They have, at long last, shared a master cinematographer.
3 stars (Out of four)
Title: “Cafe Society”
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carrell, Jeannie Berlin and Blake Lively
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 93 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language and mature theme.
The Lowdown: A young man and his rich uncle unknowingly compete for the same woman who works in the uncle’s office .