“I guess some feelings never go away. Is that good or bad?” So asks the latest Woody Allen foil, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) to his lost (and therefore true) love, Veronica a.k.a. Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). It’s a question, too, we could all–all being those still firmly devoted to the Allen canon in spite of certain glaring issues–ask of how we feel about the auteur himself. Sure, those not a part of the “gray” community (read: olds who came up with Allen when he first developed a loyal film following in the 70s) will always call into question the inappropriateness of one of Allen’s long-established favorite motifs: the older man with the younger woman. But for the audience members who can’t help but find a soft spot in their hearts for Allen, foibles and all, the answer is: it’s a good thing that some feelings never go away.
Café Society addresses a topic Allen has frequently alluded to in films past, but never so elaborately centered a plot around: contempt for Hollywood. With all its purported glamor and allure, it is, as Allen has always insisted, a frivolous place, which comes across through characters like Phil Stern (Steve Carrell), delivering hard-boiled lines such as, “This whole town runs on ego.”
But like any fresh off the boater, Bronx-born Bobby is naive and wide-eyed when it comes to his arrival to Tinseltown, relying on the promise of having a connection to Phil, his uncle and one of the big shot agents to the stars. A few weeks spent isolated in a weekly rate-type hotel (though one slightly more inviting than the kind Jesse from The Neon Demon inhabits), however, cures Bobby of a lot of his romanticism. Allen’s decision to set the narrative during the Golden Age of Hollywood further adds to the notion that, even in its objectively “best” time, Los Angeles is still, to borrow a term from Annie Hall, “a cultural wasteland” that can never compare to the majesty and electricity of New York.
After Bobby is finally granted an audience with his Uncle Phil (though Phil immediately demands not to have the title of “uncle” tacked on so as to avoid further accusations of nepotism in this town), the latter introduces him to his assistant–or, in those times, “secretary,” a vision, as they say, named Vonnie who offers to take Bobby on a tour of Beverly Hills for their first outing together. As they meander down the empty sidewalks, Vonnie explains how she used to be one of those girls who came to Hollywood hoping to make the scene, have a big pool–the whole nine yards. But after enough time, she realized it was all a meaningless façade and that the movie stars trapped in their self-made bubble were to be pitied, not envied. Naturally, Bobby–with his congenital New York jadedness–falls instantly in love with her brand of intellectualism and renouncement of “the scene.”
Taking a piece of advice from his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), Bobby decides it’s better not to ask a question he doesn’t want to know the answer to: does Vonnie have a boyfriend? Of course, she does, and to make matters worse (particularly for people who already feel grossed out by Allen’s common motif), that boyfriend is Bobby’s married uncle Phil (married to a “wonderful woman” named Karen, played briefly by Twin Peaks‘ Sheryl Lee). But, luckily for Bobby, Vonnie is shafted on their “paper anniversary” (one year) after giving Phil a heartfelt gift in the form of a handwritten love letter from Rudolph Valentino, only to have him tell her he can’t leave Karen.
This sends Vonnie running into the arms of Bobby, and, much to her surprise, their friendship soon blossoms into romance. Life in Hollywood goes smoothly for the two of them for a time, with Bobby getting promoted to script reader and Vonnie quitting from the talent agency altogether to avoid the messy personal fallout with Phil. And yet, the call of New York can’t be ignored by Bobby, who has long ago soured on the so-called charms of “the industry.” Unfortunately, because “life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer,” when Bobby pitches the idea of moving to the Village with Vonnie, it’s right around the time Phil finally decides he can’t live without her.
Forced to return to New York with a broken heart (“unrequited love kills more people in a year than tuberculosis,” as one of Bobby’s friends in high places, Steve [Paul Schneider], notes), Bobby starts over again by working in Ben’s nightclub–though is conveniently unaware of just how deeply in the underworld Ben works.
Through it all, the narration of Allen himself lends the film a distinctly influenced tone, and we can’t help but hear the voice of the director through the other characters as well, especially Bobby. As “the relentless passing of time” goes on–with Vonnie on one coast and Bobby on another–Bobby learns to put thoughts of Vonnie somewhere further in the back of his mind, ultimately settling on another, more shiksa Veronica (Blake Lively), who Steve’s wife, Rad (Parker Posey), introduces him to.
Years later, fate intervenes, bringing Phil and Vonnie to Bobby’s club where Vonnie prattles on about a story involving Errol Flynn and Irene Dunne, prompting Bobby to later tell her that she’s become everything she said she never would: vacuous, name dropping and vile–in short, a Hollywood drone. Vonnie counters that Bobby has changed too, but that they can still try to “turn back the clock” while she’s in town. This includes gambling in Brooklyn and an after hours dinner in the Bronx. And what would a trip to the Bronx be without a little bit of Tony “Paulie Gualtieri” Sirico to serve as the dark-natured host of Bobby and Vonnie’s romantic Italian dinner on Arthur Avenue? It is, in cameo moments like these, when you always have to admire Allen’s gift for casting.
As both Bobby and Vonnie come to realize they’ve made a mistake, and that they’re now too invested (with children and all) in the lives they’ve already built to correct their error, that longstanding ability Allen has to turn the tragic into the comic (bittersweetness at its finest) shines through with adroit precision.
Ending, appropriately on New Year’s Eve, Veronica II asks Bobby, “Have you ever cheated on me?” He says, “No what made you ask?” She explains, “I had a dream you did with your old girlfriend when you went back to Hollywood.” Bobby returns matter of factly, “Dreams are dreams.” And like those with dreams about what Hollywood or a failed romance can give them, they ultimately never come to fruition, leaving us only with yearning and nostalgia for what might have been.