After one or two recent misfires, Woody Allen is back on form with Cafe Society. More of a witty drama than an outright comedy, this is a film which harks back to the era of some of his earlier work such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets over Broadway, although with a completely different style to either of these.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is the youngest child in a 1930s New York Jewish family, where elder sister Evelyn works as a school teacher, while his elder brother Ben is a gangster. Desperate to escape all of this, Bobby moves to Hollywood, getting a job running errands for his high flying agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). From here, he falls in love with Bobby's secretary Vonnie, has his heart broken in a particularly cruel twist of fate, moves back to New York, starts managing his brother's high-end nightclub, meets and marries another woman called Vonnie - then meets the original Vonnie again.
The different story strands illustrate themes that have recurred throughout Allen's career, particularly in regard to chance, fate, and justice, summed up in Bobby's observation that ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.’
Eisenberg does a great job of channelling the tics and mannerisms of Allen's onscreen character. He is aided by Kristen Stewart, who as Vonnie number one, switches gear believably between lowly secretary and Hollywood wife, Steve Carrel, who brings both toughness and vulnerability to the part of Uncle Phil and Blake Lively, who makes the best of an underused part as Vonnie number two.
It is also interesting to see Allen return to a subject that he seems to have left alone for a while. Jewishness is something that defines the Dorfman family, and while it does fuel a few trademark Allen one-liners, the abandoning of this by one of their clan drives one part of the story.
Allen is not afraid to both explore and criticise two big American mythologises of the 1930s, Hollywood and gangsters. While both are undeniably glamorous for the people viewing them from a distance, and financially rewarding for those involved, any wide eyed naivety is undercut by unpleasant bitchiness for the former and gruesome violence for the latter. He also, and not for the first time in his work, ends the film on a somewhat bittersweet note, with lives changed for the worse, hopes and dreams left unfulfilled and characters left wondering what could have been.