In Woody Allen’s newest romantic comedy, Café Society, we meet Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) on his way to Hollywood in search of work in the film industry. Set in the 1930s Golden Age of Cinema, Allen takes this phrase quite literally, giving every scene a dreamy glow of nostalgia. It is when Bobby first meets Vonnie (Kirsten Stewart), a secretary to his big shot Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), that we are meant to start paying attention. Vonnie’s face lights up like an angel descended from heaven and Bobby naturally falls in love. Phil agrees to let Bobby into his glamorous world – waiting for calls from Ginger Rogers, meetings with Billy Wilder, and partying with Marlene Dietrich – and asks Vonnie to show his nephew around town.
The director seems to be covering old ground though. Café Society is another in a series of nostalgia-drenched films from Allen. In 2011, Midnight in Paris also saw a lost young man navigating through a bygone golden era. However, literary geniuses have been replaced with film stars this time round.
Midnight in Paris saw Allen tepidly returning to the modern day but now he forgoes any semblance of reality. Instead, the golden glow of Hollywood turns life into a dream. There is an air of magic to the film, even when Bobby and Vonnie sit in a shabby Mexican restaurant eating tacos. The dream isn’t lost on the characters though. As the two meet again later in the film, after parting ways and finding other people, they spend the night together and reflect on how they had remembered each other in dreams. Bobby is heartbroken but to Vonnie, “a dream is a dream”.
Café Society is clearly the result of a consuming fascination with nostalgia – a nostalgia for a time that Allen would have never even experienced himself. The few moments in the film reminiscent of the director’s past are with Bobby’s Jewish family at home in New York. However the immaculate Hollywood dream has disappeared as the family sit around a dimly lit and cramped kitchen table. It is in these moments though that we hear the voice of Allen through an in-law spurting philosophical platitudes, and through the parents bickering over religion and the meaning of life. Only in the dull, grey New York are we are faced with real conflict when Bobby’s brother is found guilty of criminal activity. The scene ends with his parents discussing whether they are more disappointed over their son’s death sentence or his consequent conversion to Christianity.
Perhaps the only other time Allen’s past finds its way into the film is the relationship between Vonnie and a much older man. The worn sentiments from her partner that “age means nothing when you’re in love”, rather than sounding hopelessly romantic, are defensive and desperate. The childish costumes of Vonnie who is never seen without a white bow in her hair make a stark contrast to Bobby’s wife Veronica’s (Blake Lively) plunging dresses. Vonnie is an unforgettable dream that Veronica can hardly contend with. As far back as 1979 in Manhattan, and as recently as in his last two films, we see relationships with similar age gaps. What seemed honestly self-aware in 2015’s Irrational Man makes eyes roll now that Allen can’t seem to shift his interest.
Not much has changed then. Diane Keaton is now played by Kirsten Stewart, and Jesse Eisenberg proves himself a convincing Woody Allen impersonator, but ultimately you can still expect the same inconclusive, moralising philosophical and religious debate that even five decades later is annoyingly funny.