Technically, it's just a Los Angeles neighborhood south of the Hollywood Hills, north of Hancock Park. It has two high schools, two post offices, four fire stations and 77,818 people, (according to the last census). Hollywood is a very real place. You can see it. Touch its walls. Hear its traffic. Feel its very ordinariness in its brick and glass, asphalt and dirt.
And yet, the place somehow lives outside its own reality. It's an imagined land of pools and palm trees, of silver screens and golden sunsets. It is a thing of myth, like Xanadu or Shangri La. This dream factory is a dream itself. And for nearly a century, it has drawn dreamers into its dappled, cruel folds.
Bobby Dorfman is a New Yorker. He was born there, lived there all his young life. His parents probably thought he'd die there like they plan to do—taking over the family business, living in the core of America's Apple.
But the family business is awfully boring. And Bobby, like many a young man, wants to do more with his life. So he goes to Los Angeles in the 1930s with stars in his head, hoping that his uncle—big-shot agent Phil Stern—might have a job for him.
He doesn't. But the kid clearly needs some help, so Phil makes one up: doing odd jobs for the Hollywood power broker until maybe something opens up in the mailroom. He instructs Bobby not to call him "Uncle" anymore. "We don't want to over-emphasize the nepotism," he says. And he instructs his secretary, Vonnie, to show Bobby around town.
It takes Bobby the whole walk to the car to fall in love with Vonnie, the late afternoon sun covering her in its warm, soft glow. His ardor grows stronger with each cheap Mexican dinner they share, each drive they take through the neighborhoods of stars. He makes halting advances, but they're rebuffed. Vonnie has a boyfriend, she tells him. Doug, a journalist. She's very much in love.
Bobby accepts the rejection with grace. Spending time with her will have to be enough … for now. His aunt back home encourages him not to give up, though. You never know what a little time, a little persistence might accomplish. Especially in the dreamy folds of Hollywood.
But Hollywood keeps secrets in its golden gown, secrets not so much hidden as camouflaged, obscured from plain view. Vonnie wasn't lying about being in love, no doubt about that. She does have a boyfriend.
But his name isn't Doug, and he's not a journalist.
No, her real lover is a married man.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
It can be difficult to find likeable protagonists in some Woody Allen movies, and Café Society is a perfect example. So the best we can do here is to cast a glance back to New York and Bobby's mother, Rose. Even as her husband rags on Phil, she believes the guy to be a genuinely good person who will, eventually, help Bobby climb a rung or two. And when people cast aspersions on her other son, Ben, she insists that he's a very nice guy, too. The fact that he's also a wise guy—that is, a gangster—doesn't diminish the fact that it's kind of sweet that Rose believes the best in people.
Bobby's family is Jewish. And Bobby's father, Marty, distrusts Phil because he's not a traditional Jew. But Marty's hardly a shining example of Jewishness either, Rose counters. "You don't pray, you don't fast and you don't have a traditional Jewish head." Elsewhere, Bobby meets a girl named Veronica who grew up in Oklahoma and who admits to Bobby that she wasn't even allowed to talk to Jews when she was a child.
When Bobby keeps making passes at Veronica and invites her to carouse around town with him, she says, "You people are pushy."
"That's part of the charm," he tells her.
We hear that Bobby's brother-in-law, Leonard, is a secular Jew who doesn't believe in God. Still, he takes part in a family Seder supper with the rest of the Dorfman clan. He often ruminates about the mysterious, random, pointless lives he says we all live.
One member of the family, dismayed that the Jewish faith doesn't have any provisions for an afterlife, converts to Christianity when death is imminent, and he's buried in a Christian cemetery (much to the chagrin of some family members). A nightclub singer belts out "Mountain Greenery," which includes a line saying that's "where God paints the scenery."
Vonnie and Phil are lovers, despite Phil liking and respecting his wife. (We never see the paramours doing much more than holding hands.) But when Phil decides they can't see each other anymore, Vonnie gravitates to still-lovestruck Bobby. The young couple kisses, sometimes passionately, and they hide underneath a rock on a beach, where it's implied that they have sex. Vonnie often wears midriff-baring tops.
Bobby eventually marries Veronica, their marriage precipitated by an unexpected pregnancy. We see them kiss and cuddle affectionately. But even then, Bobby admits to thinking about Vonnie every day. After he renews a relationship with her (despite the fact that they're both now married to other people), they kiss and confess their still-mutual feelings.
When Bobby first arrives in Hollywood, Ben gives him the number of someone who can hook him up with prostitutes. At first, Bobby is insulted. But he eventually calls anyway. When Bobby admits that this is the first time he's ever hired a prostitute, the woman says this is the first time she's prostituted herself. Both grow nervous and Bobby gets angry, eventually paying her the money without either of them ever undressing (though Bobby does go through the motions of unbuckling his belt a time or two).
We hear references to affairs and underage wives.
Ben is a gangster, and we see several hits that he or his subordinates carry out: A mentor of Ben's is shot while sitting beside him in a car. Ben walks into a barber shop and shoots someone whose face is wrapped in a towel. He and two thugs grab a struggling man and stuff him into the back of a car. We later learn that the man has disappeared. Two bodies are dumped in holes where cement is poured over them. Someone else is shot (offscreen) on a hunting trip. None of these deaths is particularly gruesome, and they're often played for comic effect.
After telling Bobby that she's pregnant, Veronica volunteers to go to Mexico to get an abortion. Bobby tells her not to worry, saying he's excited about having a baby.
Crude or Profane Language
One s-word. About a dozen other profanities, including "b--tard," "d--n" and "h---." God's name is misused nearly a dozen times, including once with the word "d--n," and Jesus' name is abused another dozen or so times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Ben runs a New York nightclub where the city's rich, powerful, glamorous and shady rub elbows. We see bars and shelves loaded with liquor, as well as many people imbibing. One guest calls for champagne "before we start drinking for real." Phil and Bobby have a couple of conversations over liquor.
Veronica talks about a former lover whom she left because of his dope use. She admits to having tried opium, but says she doesn't have an addictive personality.
Other Negative Elements
Veronica asks her husband whether he's ever cheated on her. Bobby says no, though he did kiss Vonnie and wanted to go further.
Woody Allen may be Hollywood's most Ecclesiastical director. Throughout much of his work, particularly his later films, there's a sense of wistful spiritual melancholy that permeates his work: Meaningless. Meaningless.
The book of Ecclesiastes stresses there is meaning, of course: to find and follow the will of God. But Allen finds no such solace, here or any of his other films. It feels appropriate that the director begins this story in Hollywood, a place of gossamer dreams blown on the ocean air, then returns to his beloved New York—a place far more real than Hollywood (in Allen's rendering of it), a place where those golden West Coast hopes and desires simply can't survive.
Woody Allen is an atheist, but an honest one. And as his career saunters into its own golden twilight, his work is inflected with a nagging suspicion that nothing really matters, that there can't be any real morality without God. Given those convictions—or lack thereof—his characters make and justify bad decisions.
Bobby—the nebbish, awkward and strangely unlikeable protagonist—falls for a woman he can't have and marries a woman he may not love. Phil Stern abandons a wife he still cherishes for a younger woman he adores. Ben kills people who cross him or his family (and is, arguably and oddly, one of the most sympathetic characters in the film). And Vonnie, plagued with feelings for two different men, struggles with which one to choose—even long after she's chosen.
If there is a point in this mostly pointless movie, it seems Woody Allen is asking: Why choose? Why worry? Why can't we do what the heart wants to do? Why does it have to be so difficult?
Writes Megan Garber for The Atlantic about this near nihilistic strain in Allen's later movies:
"To what extent, Allen began wondering, audibly, can the mandates of morality really apply to the messiness of human life? To what extent are cheating—and betrayal—and murder—and abuse—wrong? To what extent must they be punished? To what extent can they be justified? If there's a through line to Allen's recent work, it is a deep—almost morbid—curiosity about what, precisely, a person can get away with."
Café Society is a beautifully filmed movie, filled with echoes of glamorous old Hollywood. But like Allen's vision of Hollywood—like, perhaps, Allen's vision of life itself—it is ultimately hollow. This, too, is meaningless.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman; Kristen Stewart as Vonnie; Steve Carell as Phil Stern; Blake Lively as Veronica; Corey Stoll as Ben; Jeannie Berlin as Rose; Ken Stott as Marty; Shae D'lyn as Carlotta; Paul Schneider as Steve; Sari Lennick as Evelyn; Stephen Kunken as Leonard
Woody Allen ( Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome With Love, Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scoop, Match Point, Melinda and Melinda, Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion)
July 15, 2016
October 18, 2016