Café Society, 2016.
Directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Corey Stoll, Blake Lively and Anna Camp.
A 1930s-inspired comedy about a native New Yorker who transfers to glamorous Hollywood and finds himself in a love triangle with a secretary and a powerful married man.
The Cannes film festival’s love affair with Woody Allen has officially broken records – Wednesday’s world premiere of Café Society marked the third time that one of his features has opened the gala. Fortunately, the period comedy is an audience pleaser, showing a return to form for the veteran director after recent missteps Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man.
Set in the 1930s Jazz Age, Café Society follows Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young dreamer from the Bronx who decides to move to Hollywood to work for his uncle Phil, a successful, name-dropping studio executive (Steve Carell). Phil initially takes little interest in his nephew’s career prospects- his first job is being an errand boy – but he introduces Bobby to his secretary Veronica, aka Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Sparks immediately fly between Bobby and the unassuming Vonnie, and the pair frequently meet for dinner, tours of LA mansions and walks on the beach. However, even though Bobby is head over heels, Vonnie’s affection for him is overshadowed by her year-long affair with a married man. Bobby’s on-off relationship with Vonnie eventually encourages him to swap the West Coast for New York, where he then transforms into a smooth-talking, white tuxedoed manager of an elite club owned by his gangster brother (Corey Stoll).
While Café Society largely treads on familiar ground for Allen, it’s a testament to the prolific auteur’s talents that even recycled themes and characters can be entertaining….Or perhaps it’s also an indication of the dearth of original, mid-budget dramas and comedies being produced by the current studio system? Either way, Café Society is charming, funny and includes a fair bit of philosophical musing in its snappy 96 minute running time.
Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy mannerisms and rapid speech make him an excellent vessel to convey Allen’s own nervous energy. Somehow this didn’t work in 2012’s To Rome With Love, but here Eisenberg strides into the role with panache, essentially carrying the film and generating chemistry with the rest of the cast. Allen newcomer Kristen Stewart surprises with a much softer and warmer performance than she’s known for, but her looks would be better suited to later decades. There are lovely, albeit brief, turns by Parker Posey and Paul Schneider who play a loving, non-jaded couple, Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott as Bobby’s cantankerous parents, and Anna Camp makes a hilarious early entry as a confused call-girl.
Given Allen’s fascination with the era, the costumes, music and aesthetics of Café Society are top notch. Interestingly this is Allen’s debut collaboration with Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who adds a few different tricks to the 80-year-old director’s usual fare.
Fans hoping Allen will once again hit the contemporary highs of Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris should probably rein in their expectations. Café Society is certainly a touch syrupy and cliché, nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable bittersweet comedy that proves the multiple Oscar-winner still packs a punch.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★