Woody Allen has come under concentrated fire in the time since his (very bad) last movie, An Irrational Man. I don't want to ignore or downplay the allegations of abuse brought against him by some of his children. (If you're baffled, here's a New York Times article from the Cannes Film Festival.)
But I believe works of art are both generated by and stand apart from their creators, and this year's Allen film is Cafe Society. Allen is the very definition of prolific; by my reckoning, he's made a movie every year, since I've been born. The last truly great one was 2013's Blue Jasmine.
So what is there to say about Cafe Society? It stars Kristen Stewart—and if you're still scoffing at Stewart post-Twilight, the time to stop has long since past. Stewart is a critical and audience darling for a reason: she can do anything, from art film to mainstream movies, and in Cafe Society she works wonders with a pretty thin script. She lives and breathes, and everyone else on screen—including Jesse Eisenberg, the film's ostensible protagonist—seems shot in monochrome by comparison.
In some ways Cafe Society is a movie about nothing, a paean to Old Hollywood glamour that has the unfortunate luck to come out the same year as a much better film about the same thing, the Coen brothers' delightful Hail, Caesar! There is a love triangle between Bobby (Eisenberg) and Vonnie (Stewart), who's also having an affair with Bobby's uncle/big-time Hollywood agent (Steve Carell). That's just the start of the story, and after the fallout, it continues apace.
But the best scenes in the film belong to the cast of Bobby's New York Jewish family members, and one scene in which his parents discuss the afterlife is just about worth the price of admission. Judaism doesn't have an afterlife; Bobby's gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), faced with the electric chair, converts to Christianity for its promise of an afterlife, to the consternation of his family.
Maybe the buoyancy of those scenes in particular distracted me from whatever Allen's point is, if he had one at all. But he's an old man these days, and he's been contemplating his mortality for a long time. So maybe I'm not crazy: I think Cafe Society is really a bittersweet contemplation of the idea of an afterlife—a peculation supported by the fact that most of the film, shot by Vittorio Storaro, is bathed in a glow that's both nostalgic and downright heavenly. The movie is about the choices we make, and how they limit what happens in the future.
And what's the afterlife, if not that?
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's critic at large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World. She tweets @alissamarie.