Café Society is, by my count, Woody Allen’s forty-sixth feature film. Allen is 80 years old, and his career is unprecedented in contemporary Hollywood moviemaking—he’s a true auteur, unmatched in sheer volume of movies that are distinctly his own. And with Café Society, he’s made the ultimate Woody Allen movie.
Café Society has the tone of a swansong. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband (Berman is Allen’s idol), it’s a self-assured examination of a life spent creating. Whereas earlier apparent summaries like Deconstructing Harry have poked, prodded, and gestured at his own body of work, none has felt as genuine and confident. Even with Allen’s own infirm voice on the soundtrack and Jesse Eisenberg’s characteristically too-mean impression of the director, Café Society rarely feels like a Woody Allen movie; he’s finally dropped all of his tics and crutches, and the tendency to punctuate every scene with a one-liner.
Narrating in voiceover, Allen sounds tired—the words seem to be a struggle. But, formally, it’s a movie unleashed; the sets pop in period pastels, the light gleams under the LA sun and glimmers in candlelight. The framing is consistently inventive: vertical lines slash the frame, landmarks tower in corners, and characters are placed just-so between objects. Café Society is, at least visually, unlike anything Allen has created.
But then there are the circumstances. The movie unfolds like a novel, pausing to explain a character’s upbringing or shifting its focus entirely. Mostly, the story follows a young man who moves from New York to Hollywood in 1935. His parents are overbearing and his older brother is climbing the ranks of the Jewish mafia. But on the West Coast, the kid finds direction under the tutelage of his studio-executive uncle and an object of affection in his uncle’s young secretary. Of course, the two are sleeping together, but the kid doesn’t know that, and he bungles his way though Hollywood’s Golden Age.
If it weren’t for the brief explosions of graphic violence, all of this would feel like standard Allen material. There’s the Electra complex, the bicoastal observations, a fatalistically intellectual relative, and a situation straight out of Crimes and Misdemeanors. But as the story nears its end, something unexpected happens: this very evasive, deeply elusive moviemaker finally—and intentionally—reveals something about himself and his career. The situations don’t feel recycled as much as they feel reexamined. With nods toward everything from Annie Hall to Radio Days, the movie feels like Allen’s version of the recent De Palma—a trip down memory lane and an autopsy of a life spent making great art and horrible mistakes.
But perhaps most surprising is the movie’s spiritual optimism. Like Radio Days, the end of an era is represented by a New Year’s celebration. But where that movie was a kind of elegy, Café Society is a proud celebration of whatever comes next. It’s a defiant rebuke to Allen’s goofy nihilism that suggests the existence of an afterlife in our own legacies. One partygoer says, “Part of me has to believe we keep going. That there’s part of us that lives on. That we have a soul.” The camera swoops through the soiree and the voiceover, like a gossipy guide, intimates each guest’s story: one guy is sleeping with his wife’s sister; another spouse may have murdered an ex. Some of the tales are funny, others sad. Do they add up to anything?
Just before the clock strikes midnight, one character quotes Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living, but the examined one is no bargain.”) before admitting that it’s been “a bewildering journey” and “an awful year.” Instead of despairing, he welcomes the coming year as an opportunity to turn the page. Dreams, he says, are dreams—they don’t die.
As far as farewells go, Café Society is exuberantly bittersweet. Allen’s personal life is a mess, and who knows what to believe. But his movies are a different story; judged on his work alone, Allen’s legacy is secure. He’s a pop immortal.
Café Society. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Steve Carell. Opens in Kansas City July 29, 2016.