Artists, given sufficient amounts of encouragement and inspiration, can create new works indefinitely. Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates continue to write books, sometimes two or three a year. James Earl Jones still crosses the stage and Yo-Yo Ma still plays his cello. Bob Dylan has no plans to slow down his Never Ending Tour, and Willie Nelson's tour bus probably matches Dylan's in mileage. Nonetheless, the idea of the prolific, persistent artist has become a subject of scorn in our novelty-besotted consumer culture; distraction and conformity feed the zeitgeist, and artistic consistency can't compete with this week's box office grosses.
And yet the artists persist. Few living filmmakers challenge the urge to make films a la mode as frequently or consistently as Woody Allen, who has written and directed films at a rate of approximately one a year for half a century. He's made comedies, dramas, fantasies and nostalgic period pieces. His films range from the unclassifiable satire of Zelig to the Nietzschean funk of last year's Irrational Man. And yet with every release, a handful of reviewers claim that Allen simply makes the same film over and over. They've used that accusation as the opening line of every review of an Allen film they've written for the last twenty years, so they must know a little something about repetition, right?
These detractors may not notice that Allen's latest film Café Society, a romance set in the 1930s, is unlike anything he's ever made before. Its closest companion might be the 1987 film Radio Days, but that film played up a comic nostalgia to hold together an episodic family history. Yes, Allen has made films set in the 1930s before, but Café Society uses the past for period color more than historical material. Hollywood names are dropped fast and furiously, but purely at random; they're simply a sign of some of the characters' narcissism.
Allen has adopted the voice of a straightforward storyteller, so concentrated on pushing his characters through the steps of a bittersweet love story that he even takes on the role of off-screen narrator. This is a romance, pure and simple, and while there are some intriguing distractions — Jewish family business, high-powered movie insiders and gangsters (it's surprisingly violent for an Allen film) — they remain distant from the central love story, as if protagonist Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) can barely acknowledge their presence. There's lots of Old Hollywood glamour, but in this period piece our hero is too lost in his own emotions to connect with his surroundings.
An ungrounded young man, Dorfman arrives in LA in the mid '30s with few ambitions and no connections aside from his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a self-absorbed movie agent. Though he never becomes completely attuned to the West Coast atmosphere, Bobby begins working in his uncle's office and falls deeply in love with his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who encourages his interest despite being attached to an oft-mentioned off-screen boyfriend. One major plot twist and heartbreak later, Bobby returns to New York to manage one of Manhattan's swankiest nightclubs, owned by his gangster brother. This being a love story, he and Vonnie continue to cross paths. But this is a love story in which a happy ending — or any kind of resolution — is constantly deferred.
Café Society will inevitably — and not entirely unfairly — be dismissed as a "minor" work from Allen (when you're competing against 50 other films, it's hard to leap into the top rank), but even a minor work can be of interest when made with an artist's full commitment.
The casting, always one of Allen's biggest strengths, is excellent. Eisenberg, who has often crossed the line between intense and irritating in other films, offers an interesting take on the usual Allen-surrogate hero, downplaying the comedy but leaving the neuroticism intact. Kristen Stewart, who is meant to convey a kind of Midwestern innocence at odds with Hollywood glamour, is uncalculatingly natural, proving that her stunning performance in Clouds of Sils Maria wasn't a fluke.
But Eisenberg and Stewart, good as they are, are overshadowed in almost every scene by an off-screen performer: cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. He contrasts the desert tones and opulence of Los Angeles with the urban modernism of Manhattan. Despite a modest budget, Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto have captured the era so vividly that the actors look perfectly comfortable in their surroundings, enjoying the subtle extravagance without being overwhelmed by it. Leaving the visuals in their reliable hands, Allen and his cast were free to concentrate on the modest emotions of his script.
Yes, it's minor Allen, but a minor work from a major artist remains more honest and human than most of the "major" blockbusters bellowing around it.