If Blue Jasmine was Woody Allen's homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, his latest, Cafe Society, evokes Casablanca, in tone and romanticism. True, Allen's film is set in the 1930s, not the '40s; it takes place in Hollywood and New York City, not Paris, and there are no Nazis lurking about.
But otherwise, this plays like a spiritual prequel to the classic Bogart movie, the kind of bittersweet story of young love that might come back to haunt the participants years later, after they've moved on. (It even ends up where Casablanca begins — in a nightclub.)
Beautifully shot by veteran Vittorio Storaro, at Old Hollywood locations all over Los Angeles (including the Chinese and Los Feliz Theatres, and several vintage Bel Air mansions), Cafe Society revolves around Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg).
An innocent nebbish from one of Allen's typically large, boisterous Jewish families from the Bronx, Bobby wants more out of life than working in his father's factory. So his mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), ships him off to her brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carrell), a hotshot Hollywood agent.
|Stewart and Eisenberg: they'll take romance.|
Phil assigns his personal assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to drive Bobby around and show him the town. Beautiful, level-headed Vonnie isn't interested in the glitz and glamour of showbiz; she'd rather live at the beach and eat tacos in a cozy Mexican joint. Bobby is completely smitten with her, even though she tells him she has a boyfriend.
Allen presents a romanticized vision of a 1930s that never was — except in the movies. (The same way Casablanca romanticized the wartime era, Nazis and all.) And as a confection celebrating old-time Hollywood glamour, Cafe Society is pretty irresistible.
Still, as fresh and youthful as the central love story is, this is the work of a mature sensibility, a wistful meditation on choices made that invites us to ponder what might have been. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)