Woody Allen’s Cafe Society… No Sizzle, and No Steak Either, But Some Noteworthy Elements

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But the examined one is no bargain.

As most people who follow the career of Woody Allen know, at a certain point in time he veered from producing comedy to making more serious films, though some are spiced with comedic elements. Another way of saying that is that his later films appear to be more reflective than mere entertainments. Case in point: his painfully pointed Match Point.

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Since we’re still in the pandemic lockdown regarding our local library, we’re unable to enter the building and browse the DVD selections. Therefore, we search using the online browsing app. If you search by movie title, you can find quite a few flicks that are not in the library, and thereby waste a lot of time looking. An alternate way is to search by actor and all the films featuring that actor will get listed.

I just finished watching Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, starring (most prominently) Jesse Eisenberg and Steve Carell. Essentially, it is a movie about love triangles, against a backdrop of high society Hollywood and New York.

Jesse Eisenberg (Bobby) is the central character in this movie about a young man who leaves New York to get an education with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell) in 1930s Hollywood. Eisenberg struggles with the challenge of being at home in Hollywood, but through his experience meets and falls in love with his uncle’s secretary. His uncle, has similarly been smitten, and Penelope choose the richer, successful Hollywood agent.

As one of the losers on the love triangle (Steve Carell’s wife is the other loser) Bobby goes back to New York, and takes on a primary role at his brother’s hot nightclub. As it happens, he meets another love of his life, who coincidentally is named Penelope. Their amorous relationship results in her becoming pregnant and ultimately married.

The parallel story of his brother the gangster becomes a vehicle to insert ethical issues into a somewhat less complicated story. Love triangles and infidelity are almost commonplace, so a backstory about a brother who is a thug helps add a dimension.

Noteworthy Elements

There are a number of features in this film that tell you this is a Woody Allen film. Here are just a few.

Love for New York

Woody Allen was born in New York, and his passion for the city of his birth is hard to conceal. Manhattan was an opus of sorts. Here in Cafe Society it is barely concealed.

Philosophical Ponderings

The manner in which Woody Allen weaves theological questions and philosophical digressions into his films is quite intriguing. Over and over again we find characters debating conflicting views on ethical matters.

Recurring Themes

High society glamour, jazz, Jewishness and gangsters are frequently inserted into Woody Allens films. Rule one to young writers is, “Write about what you know.” High society, jazz and Jewishness are all facets of who he is. Where do the gangsters fit into his life experience? It probably doesn’t matter, but serves as a method for dissecting some related ethical issues.

Witty Dialogue

As usual the characters have a lot of good lines. For some reason, though things feel emotionally barren. We’ve met these argumentative Jewish parents in an earlier Woody Allen film or two, so it almost feels like a cliche.

There is a sense in which I was reminded of Robert Redford’s screen adaptation of A River Runs Through It. In that film it seemed to me that Brad Pitt was chosen to play the role Redford would have played had he been a younger man. Redford also narrated the story. In this case, Woody Allen narrates, and Eisenberg is selected to play the role Allen would have played. In fact, in the early part of the move Bobby even sounded like Woody Allen. I don’t think I was imagining it.

My original title for this movie review was going to be Woody Allen’s Cafe Society… “Meh.” At even the reviewers who liked it didn’t go gaga over it. Yes, the exotic quality of high society life is well done, but we have seen that before, too. Hollywood is very much in love with itself, though Allen does have Bobby and his uncle deliver a few barbs about it all.

Rating: Three stars out of five

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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