Beauty of Woody Allen’s ‘Cafe Society’ is skin deep

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) in “Café Society” 2016 Gravier Productions, Inc., Photography Sabrina Lantos

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Dictionaries define “cafe society” as the world of socialites who regularly frequent cafes, nightclubs, resorts and other fashionable spots. The term originated in the mid- to late-1930s, according to the “Random House Dictionary,” which puts it at the end of the Great Depression and the eve of World War II. 

Neither of those events is acknowledged in Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society,” a bittersweet romantic comedy set in the 1930s. With a new Allen film, one hopes for something triumphant, such as “Blue Jasmine.” But “Cafe Society” is middling at best. It offers some enjoyment but is not  particularly memorable.

Like many of Allen’s recent films, the story, supposedly set in the Great Depression, takes place in a fantasy world in which no one works and no one experiences real hardship. The few who do are mere plot devices rather than people. 

Allen provides voice-over narration for his tale about Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), the youngest child of a Jewish jeweler in the Bronx. Young Bobby is not much interested in his father’s business; he wants to move to Hollywood, where his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a successful talent agent. 

Phil is living a life of lavish parties while running an agency representing big-name movie stars, and he is not very interested in taking on his inexperienced young nephew. Despite Phil’s efforts to discourage him, Bobby shows up on his doorstep. Reluctantly, Phil finds him something to do, but Bobby surprises him, proving to have a knack for the business.

Meanwhile, Bobby falls for Phil’s pretty young secretary  Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), although she is involved with someone. Bobby and Vonnie begin an affair, but it doesn’t work out, and heartbroken Bobby returns to the Bronx. 

Back in New York, Bobby runs a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll). The club is a favorite spot for politicians, gangsters and high society, and it is where he meets a non-Jewish socialite named Veronica (Blake Lively).  

 “Cafe Society” is a very pretty film, filled with nice period sets and gorgeous costumes. Although we are told it is the 1930s, the story seems to exist in some Hollywood fantasy time, one more like the Roaring ’20s than the Great Depression. Of course, that is the fantasy world – exciting gangsters and the glittering society rich – that 1930s Hollywood offered as escapist distraction to audiences struggling with the real hardships of the Depression. 

This fantasy world of movie stars and lavish parties makes sense in the Hollywood scenes but, oddly, once Bobby returns to the Bronx and his middle-class family, the fantasy life of comfort and no worries continues. No one struggles with money, and Bobby is quickly immersed in cafe society at his brother’s posh nightclub. Anything really bad seems far off, such as the film’s few arms-length peeks at the gangster’s crimes.

Eisenberg does a nice job as Bobby, and Stewart does her usual smoky-eyed beauty bit, but the lightweight story never puts heavy demands on the actors. Character development is thin despite a good cast including Parker Posey and Paul Schneider as a Hollywood power couple who befriend Bobby. 

Bobby’s father, Marty (Ken Stott), kvetches constantly, often about family members he thinks are hardly Jewish, while mom Rose (Jeannie Berlin) tries to smooth things over, particularly regarding their gangster son Ben. Bobby’s sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is a good-hearted person but is married to left-leaning intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken), who has opinions that upset Marty.

The story’s theme of bittersweet memories and young love has a universal appeal, and the film seems to be reaching for a sweeping scope. While “Cafe Society” is strong on mood and flavor, it just does not have much depth or substance. 

Unlike many of Allen’s more recent films, this one does have some obvious Jewish content. Bobby’s family is Jewish, and a few discussions even involve morality or religion. But these discussions seem to skim the surface, with many centering on the immoral but cardboard character of the gangster son, who exists more as a topic of conversation than a person. Mostly he is a plot device, there to supply money when needed or bump someone off, or just as someone to talk about. 

Overall, “Cafe Society” is a pretty film whose major appeal is its touching story of long-ago young love. Unfortunately, it has ambitions to be more than it ultimately is.