There is a theological bent to Woody Allen’s CAFÉ SOCIETY. It’s there in the constant bickering between the hero’s parents about whether or not a relative has a Jewish-shaped head. And, furthermore, if he doesn’t, how can he be a proper Jew? Such questions are a Midrash on the actual story, which concerns a young man, Bobby Dorfman (Jessie Eisenberg) just starting out in life, and the choices he makes for himself, and the ones that he has had made for him.
Narrated by Allen himself, the film begins in the Hollywood of the 1930s, where Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is one of the most powerful agents in Tinseltown. In the midst of glamorous poolside party, Phil receives a phone call, not the expected one from Ginger Rogers, but rather an unexpected one from his sister (Jeannie Berlin) back in the Bronx. She has a request that can’t wait. Her son, Bobby, is moving there and needs help finding a job. It’s an irksome thing, but Phil can’t refuse, though he does keep Bobby waiting three weeks before having him ushered into his elegantly appointed office. When he does, it’s not exactly warmly, yet not exactly coldly. Distracted is the word, but eventually persuaded to hire the young man as a glorified errand boy. But it’s the random suggestion that Bobby be shown around town by Phil’s secretary, Veronica (Kristen Stewart), Vonnie for short, that will have the greater import for all concerned. A Nebraskan in ankle socks and sweet frocks, she shows Bobby the stars’ homes, while telling him how jaded she has become by the excess of big houses and fancy parties. She longs, as she tells Bobby, for a simple life. Bobby, a wide-eyed innocent whose greatest charm is his unadulterated naiveté, is, of course, hopelessly smitten. Never mind Vonnie’s boyfriend to whom she is devoted.
It’s that innocence that leads to Bobby’s ironic role as everyone’s confidante, and his role as an unwitting go-between passing unintended messages between lovers who have called off their affair. It is a milieu of blissful ignorance and arch sophisticates, genuine emotion and heart-rending revelations that will fuel Bobby’s return east, where he will take a job at the nightclub run by his brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), a violent but principled gangster with a soft spot for family. A choice that will lead to another romance with another Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he meets by chance, or is it fate?, when she walks into his club at just the right moment.
Allen returns here to one of his familiar preoccupations. That would be pondering with a mordant wit whether the universe has an order of some sort, or if it is all just chaos with nothing afterwards but oblivion. And if the latter, what is the meaning of life? When an impending death troubles the Dorfmans, Bobby’s father claims not to fear the Grim Reaper, but that he plans to go out protesting when his time comes. His mother, equally troubled, finds herself musing that the Jewish lack of a promised afterlife is what keeps the religion small. There are volumes of philosophy about the meaning of life bouncing between those two reactions, and for all the frivolity of scenes where a disingenuous Bobby is unwilling to be a call girl’s first customer if can do so without hurting her feelings, and Ben taking exception when a nasty neighbor threatens his sister’s dog, there is also the angst that can accompany life-changing decisions, the accepting of responsibility for, and the consequences of, those decisions. Balance that with the story of car accident that leads to marriage. Also funny, but disquieting to think that a lifetime of happiness can be decided by the impersonal laws of physics played out in a split second of rubble and twisted steel.
With echoes of Allen’s CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and RADIO DAYS, CAFÉ SOCIETY itself is a balancing act for all concerned, teetering on a knife edge between tragedy and absurdity. Carell’s character finding the truth of both in a role that requires Phil to be many things to many people, sometimes in quick succession, and doing so without missing a beat. At the center of it all, embodying the wistful sadness of dreams lost, but not quite forgotten, and the bittersweet happiness of new dreams found, there is Eisenberg, who does an impressive turn as that innocent who becomes less wide-eyed with the passage of time and the intrusion of disappointment, but who never grows cynical or embittered, only wiser.