Early in Woody Allen's sublime Café Society, a nebbish Hollywood newbie fantasizes about stardom with a dashing young actress-turned-secretary. "I can't imagine what it would feel like being larger than life," he giggles, hypnotized by the pomp of 1930s Los Angeles. Her contact high faded long ago: 'I'd be happy being life-sized," she calmly responds.
Nothing tempers robust dreams like a little experience, and Allen's latest comedy effortlessly surveys the long arc of disillusionment for these two potential lovebirds. Initially, there's a glowing possibility that, despite the cynicism of the adult world, natural-born chemistry might win the day. But the fates giveth, and the fates taketh away; countless little emotional compromises help foster an environment suspicious of hope, a place where conformity comes naturally.
The film opens with one of its few brave acts. Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) decides to escape his humdrum life in New York City and move west to work in the film business. After weeks of waiting and expecting, he finally lands a menial job in the office of his movie mogul uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). There he meets Vonnie (Stewart), a charming girl Friday whose subtle cynicism toward the industry limelight is transfixing.
Timing is everything, as one character says, and Bobby's isn't great. Vonnie's long-gestating affair with another man complicates their momentary tryst. Eventually heartbreak sends Bobby back to New York City where his gangster brother (Corey Stoll) offers him the job of manager at a posh nightclub. Here, the film takes on an altogether new identity; amid a different hodgepodge of professional fakers, delusion replaces desire as the driving force for change.
At first glance, Café Society might seem like Allen treading water. Witty conversations revolve around fate, religion and morality expressing a collective nervousness about love and happiness. "The poignancy of life" reveals a push-pull between academic reason and brute violence. But much like Magic in the Moonlight, its power builds over time through the subtle gut punches thrown at each character's prideful egos. Vittorio Storaro's sun-kissed cinematography makes that transition entirely seamless.
Much tension emanates from the battle between public and private personas. Allen calls attention to this dynamic through his own voice-over narration, waxing eloquently about missed opportunities, forlorn dalliances and the cautionary advice we don't heed. "She had warned him from the start," he says about Vonnie, whose decision to marry an elder statesman derails Bobby's waking life in Los Angeles. But the young man finds even more confusion in the Big Apple, suggesting that each region plays host to their own unique brand of self-deception.
Settling down becomes an inevitable reality of growing up. In Café Society, Allen sees it as the great monotonous tragedy of his characters' lives, something they cannot avoid. A great exchange between Bobby's Orthodox Jewish parents (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) about the disappointing one-sidedness of prayer feels like a culmination in this regard. "No answer is also an answer!"
Delivered with sincere anxiety by stalwart actors young and old, this kind of veiled cynicism contains an undercurrent of real pain. "Pondering the relentlessness of time" makes us expend a lot of energy, and sometimes it's easier to take the easier way out. How else could one explain Allen's predilection for showing multiple gunshots to the head?
Café Society, which opens Friday, July 22, ends with a dual New Year's Eve celebration with everything seemingly in balance. Nothing could be further from the truth. "It's been an awful year," one character says as the champagne bottles pop and confetti falls down. For a brief moment, the truth shines through to reveal a stinging alternate viewpoint. Our many bad decisions do add up over time, and labeling the aftermath "guilt" would just be a copout.