Café Society, like the stylish, champagne-soaked soirées its characters so often attend, is a frivolous bit of fun that is perfectly enjoyable in the moment and quickly forgotten. Directed by Woody Allen, the film is set in 1930s Hollywood and opens on a glamorous social gathering hosted by the “brilliant and dynamic” (according to Allen’s voice over narration) talent agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Phil initially appears to be our protagonist and Carell cuts such a dapper figure in his 30s formal wear that it’s a bit of a disappointment when the movie immediately pivots to focus on his nebbishy young nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg).
The youngest child of Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) Dorfman, a middle-class Jewish couple from the Bronx, Bobby has recently quit his father’s modest jewellery business and moved to Hollywood, where he hopes to get a job at his uncle’s talent agency. Phil is reluctant to even meet with Bobby at first, but eventually relents and agrees to let the kid runs some menial errands for him. After reflecting on his own memories of what it’s like to be new in town with no friends Phil also promises to invite his nephew over for some of the parties he and his wife host and assigns his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show Bobby the town.
Vonnie takes Bobby on leisurely afternoon drives through Beverly Hills to gaze at the extravagant homes of movie stars like Spencer Tracy and Joan Crawford. Bobby is overawed but Vonnie seems less impressed. She confesses that like every other girl in town she moved to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a famous actress but has since realized “what a silly life that can be”. Beguiled by her unaffected charm and utter lack of pretension, Bobby quickly falls for Vonnie but she politely rejects his advances, insisting she has a boyfriend. The audience soon learns that this boyfriend is in fact Phil and that the two have been having an affair for a year.
After Phil ends their affair Bobby comforts a crying Vonnie by promising to spend his entire summer helping her forget her ex while having no idea that said ex is actually his uncle and employer. The next few months pass in a scenic, sunlit montage of weekend trips to the beach and daily visits to the cinema that is to romance what moisture is mildew. It’s not long before Vonnie finds herself returning some of Bobby’s amorous feelings and the two soon begin a relationship. When Bobby tells Phil that he has asked Vonnie to marry him and move with him to Manhattan the older man is overcome with jealousy and immediately moves to win his former mistress back.
Though it is not an easy decision Vonnie ultimately choses to be with Phil after he promises to finally leave his wife for her and a heartbroken Bobby returns to New York to help his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) run a nightclub. Over the next few years Bobby thrives, developing into a confident, successful young man with a beautiful wife (Blake Lively) and newborn daughter. Despite all this it’s clear that Bobby is still haunted by memories of what he had with Vonnie, and when she strolls into his club one evening on the arm of her now husband Phil it throws Bobby’s life into turmoil.
Café Society also has a number of subplots involving Ben’s gangster activities and a conflict between Bobby’s sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and brother-in-law Leonard (Stephen Kunken) and their neighbour, but the love triangle between Bobby, Vonnie and Phil is the main thrust of the film. The issue is that it becomes difficult to see Vonnie and Bobby as soulmates or root for them to end up together once Blake Lively’s character enters. Lively generally has a vapid, somewhat stiff screen presence but she’s an utter delight here as the flirtatious, candid, open-minded and funny rival for Bobby’s affections. Within thirty seconds she has so thoroughly charmed you that it seems inconceivable that Bobby would leave her for Stewart’s Vonnie, rendering much of Café Society’s final act dramatically inert.
Still, the aesthetic pleasures of Woody Allen’s 47th feature film, including Vittorio Storaro’s glowing cinematography and Santo Loquasto’s splendid production design, make it worth seeing in spite of these flaws.