Café Society (2016): Structure and Narraion of Woody Allen’s Film

cafe_society_3_allen_stewart_eisenbergSet in the 1930s, Woody Allen’s bittersweet romance Café Society follows Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) to Hollywood, where he falls in love, and back to New York, where he is swept up in the vibrant milieu of high society club life.

A panoramic tale of New York and Hollywood, this romantic dramedy features a large cast of characters, from movie stars to millionaires, playboys to professors, and working girls to wise guys.

Structure of a Novel
The film’s broad scope was integral from the start. “When I wrote the script, I structured it like a novel,” says Allen. “As in a book, you stop for a little while in this movie and see a scene with the protagonist with his girlfriend, a scene with his parents, followed by a scene with his sister or gangster brother, a scene with Hollywood stars and wheeler-dealers, and then the café society with politicians, debutantes, playboys, and the people cheating on their wives or shooting their husbands. To me it was always a story not of one person but of everybody.”
At the center is the story of Bobby Dorfman, a Bronx boy whose ambitions take him to Hollywood and back again to New York. “Bobby’s love story is the armature that the film is hung on,” says Allen, “but all these other characters make up the atmosphere and fabric of the story itself.”

Authorial Voice
As in a novel, the movie’s story is related through an authorial voice, so Allen decided it would be appropriate for the film to have narration, and to take on that job himself.  “I put myself in because I knew exactly how I wanted the words to be inflected,” he says. “I figured that since I wrote the book, it would be like I was reading from my novel.”

Café Society as Concept
“Café Society” refers to the socialites, aristocrats, artists, and celebrities who gathered in fashionable cafes and restaurants in New York, Paris, and London in the late 19th and early 20th Century. The term became popular in New York City in the 1930s, after the end of Prohibition and the rise of the tabloid journalism that avidly covered the denizens of Café Society.

Night Clubs in New York

cafe_society_1_allen_stewart_eisenbergThere were dozens of dazzling clubs in New York City at the time, including some with 50-piece orchestras. Every night the glitterati donned tuxedoes and gowns and made the circuit from Greenwich Village jazz spots to legendary midtown venues like El Morocco, to 142nd Street in Harlem, site of the Cotton Club. “That era has always fascinated me,” says Allen. “It was one of the most exciting times in the history of the city, with tremendous theatre life, café life, and restaurants. Up and down the line, wherever you were, the whole island was jumping with nighttime sophisticated activities.”
Golden Age Hollywood

Hollywood also was a place  for the rich and famous, but their nightlife was markedly different from the one in New York. “It was the glamour of the Cocoanut Grove and the Trocadero,” says Allen. “There weren’t many places to go to, the hours were earlier, the clothes were lighter, and everyone was driving their cars places. There was a certain amount of it that was very glamorous because they had the movie stars, but New York had a certain all night sophistication that Hollywood didn’t have.”

Family Saga
CAFÉ SOCIETY is a portrait of era and a family saga. Bobby’s father Marty (Ken Stott) is a gruff but deeply moral man who owns a modest jewelry store in the Bronx. His wife Rose (Jeannie Berlin) is always ready with negative assessments of his mental capacity and other failings. “She feels, probably inaccurately, that with a different husband she might have had a better life,” says Allen. “They fight all the time, but they’re very committed to each other and they love each other—it’s just a different kind of demonstration of it. They would be right there at the hospital bed if anything happened to either one of them.”

Ben (Corey Stoll), the oldest of the three Dorfman children, is a gangster. “Ben sees that his father could never afford anything and was always struggling,” says Allen. “He got in with the gangs, found jobs that paid good money, but were not legal, and found that there was a very lucrative and glamorous life to be led outside the law.” While Ben has strayed ethically from the family, his devotion to his relatives doesn’t change—he is always around for family events and available to help everyone.   Evelyn (Sari Lennick), the bright middle sister, becomes a teacher and marries Leonard (Stephen Kunken), a professor, and pursues a more cerebral life.  Leonard, while something of a egghead, is a principled man who adores Evelyn.






Movers and Shakers

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) set out for Los Angeles, hoping for something more interesting than working in his father’s jewelry store. Working for his mother’s high-powered agent brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), seems much more promising. “Bobby starts the movie as an almost blank slate, a kind of naïve dreamer who thinks he can go to Hollywood and will be swept up by a welcoming industry,” says Eisenberg. “Of course that’s not what happens. But he thinks that he wants something more exciting and he is part of a generation and a culture that made that dream feel like it was possible, especially because he had an uncle who did it. As he is exposed to the real world, both the beauty of it and the struggle, he self-actualizes in a sweet and flawed way.”
Bobby’s uncle Phil is a high-energy mover and shaker who is on a first name basis with many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, but is slow to recognize his own sister’s voice on the phone. “When you first meet Phil, he’s very formidable,” says Carell. “He’s always multi-tasking, always has a call and a meeting going on at the same time, and he embraces that role fully. But the more you see him, you realize he has a softer and more vulnerable side, and that he has a decency—he doesn’t make decisions at the expense of other people’s feelings. I think this makes him more human and more endearing.”

As Bobby is new to LA, Phil asks his assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show him around town. After she takes him on a tour of movie star homes and shares her experiences and opinions about Hollywood, Bobby is immediately smitten. “Vonnie is an ambitious, fresh girl who is completely aware of the surface nature of the business she’s in,” says Stewart. “It’s fun and exciting, but there’s also an emptiness she sees—and that gives her charm.” Says Eisenberg: “I think both characters are constantly attracted to and resisting the allure of the glitzier side of the city of entertainment. But Vonnie provides a wonderful antidote for Bobby. She is cynical, funny, and seems to have a real world perspective.” Unfortunately, Vonnie has a boyfriend, and he must settle for her friendship.

While in Los Angeles, Bobby befriends two fellow New Yorkers, Rad Taylor (Parker Posey), a vivacious woman who owns a modeling agency, and her wealthy producer husband Steve (Paul Schneider). Steve invites Bobby to a screening of one of his movies at their home, and Bobby gets his first taste of what a life in Hollywood might hold for him.
When Vonnie’s boyfriend abruptly breaks up with her, Bobby seizes the opening to romance her, and eventually she returns his affections. While he is starting to move up the ladder at Phil’s agency, he comes to the conclusion that Los Angeles is not for him.  He asks Vonnie to marry him and come back to New York and lead a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. Vonnie seems on the verge of saying yes when her ex-boyfriend comes back into the picture. Although she loves Bobby, she decides on her ex-boyfriend instead, leaving Bobby devastated.
Back in New York, Bobby goes to work for big brother Ben, who has taken over a nightclub called “Club Hangover.”  Bobby quickly proves a smooth operator, naturally able to work a crowd, with an instinct for how to attract the brightest members of Café Society to the club. Rad convinces him to remodel and change the club’s name to the more chic-sounding “Les Tropiques.” Soon the place is teeming with socialites, celebrities, politicians, and playboys, and Bobby roams freely among them, the genial host of the never-ending party.

Rad introduces Bobby to Veronica (Blake Lively), a socialite whose husband has just left her for her best friend. “Veronica is definitely hurt and a little damaged by what happened, but she’s not yet jaded by the world,” says Lively. “There a purity about her that’s refreshing, in the way she hears about Bobby’s heritage and she meets it with curiosity rather than judgment.  She has an openness that removes any of the social and political boundaries that were prevalent back in those days.”

Veronica is quickly won over by Bobby’s charm and confidence, and after a whirlwind courtship, she tells him that she’s pregnant. While Bobby still hasn’t gotten Vonnie out of his head, he proposes, and they marry. “Veronica was a really interesting character to take on because this film is a love story, and you’re really rooting for the two people at the heart of the love story,” says Lively. “Then Veronica comes in, and you’re supposed to like her but also want the two original lovers to be together again. You really root for her, and at the same time you root for them. It was a neat character to play to come in and shake things up a bit.”