In many ways, life is a series of transformation and personal growth – we see this in ourselves, in others, in laws, and in changing forms of society and culture. However, it is not often that a film is able to demonstrate these changes and their transforming power over a relatively short time span. Café Society, the most recent film by Woody Allen, is able to encapsulate these transformations over the course of a few short but vital years in the lives of the main character.
Set in the 1930s, the film begins with Bobby Dorfman, an eager young man from New York City who finds himself in an increasingly suffocating home, with two bickering parents, an opinionated older sister who is stuck in an unhappy marriage, a lecturing brother-in-law, and a gangster older brother. Wanting to experience the world for himself, Bobby travels to Hollywood and seeks out his successful film agency head uncle Phil Stern. Phil is a quintessential Hollywood executive, constantly working and engaging in social activities with the goal of creating more business opportunities. In essence, his life is a combination of working within self-serving relationships while also redefining himself to meet the image he feels he must portray in order to continue advancing in the industry.
Phil puts Bobby off for a while and eventually takes him on as an errand boy. He also arranges for his secretary, Vonnie, to show Bobby the town. With a new friend and a new job, Bobby begins to thrive, although he finds himself falling in love with Vonnie, who at the time has an unnamed love interest. However, when this relationship ends, Bobby and Vonnie became an item and Bobby – ever the New Yorker – makes plans for them to marry and move to Manhattan. By the time Bobby suggests this to Vonnie the audience already sees that, despite his inherent naiveté, Bobby has moved through important stages of life and is able to figure out a path to some success in Hollywood although he does not plan to pursue it.
Sadly for Bobby, Vonnie’s boyfriend was none other than Phil, and she decides to return to him and follow the path of the glamorous – yet seemingly fake – Hollywood wife. With his heart broken, Bobby returns to his parents’ home in New York. He goes through a variety of jobs without finding something fulfilling to hold his attention. In many ways, it is as if he has regressed to the pre-Hollywood Bobby, although with a harder and more jaded heart.
Finally, Bobby takes up an offer from his gangster brother Benny and joins him in operating a nightclub, Café Society, that eventually becomes the toast of the town. In a short time, Bobby grows into an adult who is capable of charming wealthy and influential patrons and balancing Benny’s less savory traits. He brings the experiences he gained while in Hollywood to Café Society and makes creates an image that goes beyond the naïvete he usually displays.
One night, Bobby meets Veronica, a high society divorcee who he instantly falls in love with. They share a whirlwind romance that culminates in marriage and the birth of a child. In many ways, Bobby seems to have come of age as a family man and as a businessman once Benny receives the death penalty for murder. Although Benny’s trial is quite visible, the aura surrounding it only added into the mystique of Café Society and business continues to grow just as Bobby does.
And then one night Vonnie and Phil walk into Café Society. All at once, adult Bobby seems to fade into the background and the young Bobby who moved to Hollywood re-emerged, complete with the vulnerabilities he tried to leave behind. At first he tries to hide from the spectre of his past but eventually Vonnie catches up to him and suggests that they get together to chat, with no expectation other than that. Over the course of several days, they tour the city and relive old times but at the same time highlight the ways in which each person has changed.
Vonnie has grown into the woman she claimed she never wanted to be – the wealthy but fake socialite who fills her time with meaningless stories and friends who flock to her because of her standing. Society views her differently than when she was a secretary however in her deepest heart she is unsatisfied and wonders what could have been if she stayed with Bobby. At the same time, Bobby has become hugely successful and has everything he thought he could want – a beautiful and loving wife, a growing family, and people who respect him. Society certainly views him in a different light than when he was an errand boy for Phil. In his heart, he feels the pain of his first love leaving him and yet is aware that the life he lives is likely more than he could have achieved if he and Vonnie stayed together.
Overall, Café Society takes the audience on a short yet intense journey through the lives of two young people who are trying to define what and who they are and demonstrates how the courses of lives differ from those planned. The film also notes how the people grow with and within society just as society can grow with and around them.