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cafe society review
A New Yorker relocates to Hollywood and falls for his agent Uncle's secretary/mistress.

Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Woody Allen

Starring: Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Jeannie Berlin, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott

cafe society poster

In the first edition of Ingmar Bergman’s Images: My Life in Film that followed the Scandinavian legend’s death, Woody Allen introduced the work saying: “Bergman made about sixty films in his lifetime, I have made thirty-eight. At least if I can’t rise to his quality maybe I can approach his quantity.” Since he wrote those words, Allen has been making good on his promise: that number has since ballooned to about 50. His newest annual entry, Café Society, is no Bergman, but if you like Woody Allen, especially the Allen of Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), then you won’t need this review to tell you that you’ll like Café Society well enough.

In this thinking-mensch’s rom-com, Allen tells the story of Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), a fresh-faced guy from the Bronx who goes to Hollywood to work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful Hollywood agent. After slowly worming his way into his distant uncle’s professional and social milieus, Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Though Vonnie does return some of Bobby’s affection, she is more serious about her passionate relationship with the married Phil. Bobby, dejected, moves back to New York and, with the help of his mobster brother, (Corey Stoll) opens a successful post-prohibition era café. Vonnie has not disappeared from his life yet though; more romantic intrigue ensues…

cafe society review

Café Society offers virtually nothing new. In fact, the film is a veritable sampler of Allen’s favourite tropes. There’s still a nervous double-talking male lead; there’s still comedy with existential overtones; there’s still an Amarcord-like nostalgia for pre-WWII modernism; there’s still love found, love lost, love bittersweetly encountered years later. What’s amazing is that some of these elements can still work as effective ingredients of a poignant romantic comedy. Yet what’s hardly surprising is that Café Society never surprises.

When Bobby runs into Lonnie years later at his bustling New York café, you can’t help but think of the beautiful final moments of Allen’s best film, Annie Hall (1977), and project that fine feeling onto Café Society. When it turns out that Bobby’s Hollywood boss is also seeing Lonnie, we are reminded of how skilled Allen can be as a structural farceur.

Still, some of the comedy falls flat. There’s an entirely superfluous bit towards the beginning in which Bobby decides to hire a prostitute. The prostitute (Anna Camp) shows up and as it turns out, Bobby is her first client. Their nervous repartee fancies itself as clever and sweet, but it lands uncomfortably. As for the nostalgia filter, Allen strikes a fine visual tone, but the references he makes to old Hollywood are overwrought; his artless way of constantly name-dropping old movie stars serves no function other than to show what a great memory the bespectacled writer/director has. No one should be surprised that Allen adds an existentialist strain, embodied by Bobby’s Marxist uncle who frets about religion and death. Allen has provocatively (and importantly) broached these complex ideas before, especially in films like Love and Death (1975) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), but in Café Society, this brand of comedic dread seems both tacked-on and stale.

cafe society review

Playing Vonnie, Kristen Stewart delivers a fine performance. Stewart is an interesting case as far as movie stars go. Thanks to the Twilight series and various mindless Internet memes, Stewart is thoroughly entrenched in 21st century pop iconography. Yet she also has an alluring and very natural aura about her that she carries from film to film - an aura that makes her an ideal casting choice for art house directors (Olivier Assayas has thoroughly tapped into this by now) who strive for an organic emotional and stylistic tone over a realistic performance. Stewart may not be a great actress per se, but she is undoubtedly a great movie star. This makes her especially suited for Café Society; she can burn the same glamorous glares into the nitrate (even though Allen is using digital for the first time here) that Garbo or Lombard could have done during the '30s. She has the Classical Hollywood class that blends Allen’s nostalgia with a modernity that lends her a certain timelessness, a quality that works in Café Society’s favour.

Unfortunately, Eisenberg is not on the same page. He has yet to prove he can do something other than mumblecore, which works in movies like The Social Network, but in Café Society it’s distractingly anachronistic. What’s more, where Owen Wilson and Larry David succeeded in playing Woody’s jittery, post-Bosrscht surrogate (in Midnight in Paris and Whatever Works (2009) respectively), Eisenberg cannot comfortably nor convincingly deliver the lines that are so obviously Woody Allen: he doesn’t seem to have yet developed the range to project something other than his nervous, boyish, unmistakably contemporary persona.

cafe society review

Star-turns aside, the actress who really runs away with Café Society is Jeannie Berlin, who plays Bobby’s braying yet docile mother. Berlin’s mother is Elaine May, a comedian and director who rose to prominence about the same time as Allen. Berlin acted in her mother’s very funny film The Heartbreak Kid the same year Allen made a big impression with Bananas (1972). After all these years, Berlin seems naturally attuned to Allen’s comedic roots in a way his younger actors simply aren’t. Her performance proves that Allen’s writing hasn’t become completely tired - there are just fewer actors who can make it sound fresh.

Allen managed to snag Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) as his cinematographer. Dealing with digital, Storaro bathes the film in a pea soup coloured light that reminds one of The Double Life of Veronique more than anything. It’s not necessarily atmospheric, but it makes for some good compositions here and there. Ultimately, the cinematography reflects Café Society as a whole in that there are a few truly worth-while elements, but they never quite coalesce into a deeply moving romance or a winningly funny comedy. But nevertheless, if you’re an Allen fan and you’re looking for an easy night out, then Café Society should do the trick.

2016 movie reviews