Review: Café Society (2016)

Café Society (2016)

Directed by: Woody Allen | 96 minutes | comedy, drama, romance | Actors: Jesse Eisenberg, Steve Carell, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Sheryl Lee, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Richard Portnow, Tess Frazer, Anna Camp

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a naive boy from the Bronx who moves to the glamorous Hollywood of the 1930s to make it there. After some struggles, he is taken under the wing of his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a powerful movie buff, but then finds himself entangled in a complicated love situation when both Phil and himself find themselves in love with the same woman, Phil’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart). also known as Vonnie.

Experiences richer and illusions poorer, he finds himself back in New York in the swinging nightclub scene full of parties and jazz (hence the title) – and with it also in the criminal enterprise of his older brother Ben (Corey Stoll). This is much to the concern of his immediate family.

‘Café Society’ is made up of scenes in which typical Woody Allen-esque entanglements, with commentary by Woody Allen, result in a film that Woody Allen would have made better thirty years ago. It is well known that the filmmaker has not reached his highest level for many years. His more recent films are amusing and lighthearted at best, like a pair of old slippers that fit comfortably — and annoying navel-gazing at worst. The navel-gazing is somewhat contained here, although the familiar Allen themes are again the same and this time Eisenberg is allowed to do a kind of Woody Allen imitation as a neurotic and slightly socially awkward young man in search of meaningful love. He does that very successfully and he gets good counterplay from a radiant Stewart like Vonnie. The two – who have played together before – have good chemistry and this shows their budding romance (despite Phil as the third person in the love triangle). Around them emerge the well-known (almost stereotypical) Allen characters, in the form of the Jewish relatives and humorous (or at least intended) asides that have little to do with the plot and mainly illustrate that real life is not so linear and as in most other movies. Special commendation to Blake Lively who – surprisingly – plays a second love partner of Bobby named… Veronica. That can’t be a coincidence, of course.

Partly due to the efforts of the actors in lead and supporting roles, ‘Café Society’ reaches an average level towards the old slippers, partly due to a few good scenes that rise above the rest of the fairly short film. The ambiance is also a strong plus. The film is infused with nostalgia and with a decor that closely resembles the classics of the “golden age” of Hollywood. This is due in no small part to Vittorio Storaro’s camera work. The jazz music is well chosen and supports the film on crucial points, but that is no substitute for the weak screenplay. Also, Allen’s narrating voice is present far too often to talk parts of the story together, which he could have shown better in a handful of scenes. The film also tends too much towards all kinds of subplots that do not benefit the coherence of the film.

‘Café Society’ sometimes breathes the atmosphere of an unfinished film, as if it were some sort of test version, or first preview. Scenes don’t seem to be quite finished, or could have been trimmed, and so there’s an air of sloppiness about the whole thing. Allen seems to be a forgetful cook here, who has left his ingredients simmering on the fire, but ultimately fails to serve a complete meal. In doing so, the experienced filmmaker does his well-playing cast an absolute disgrace.

All in all ‘Café Society’ is a nice and light-hearted, but certainly not special film from the expanding oeuvre of Woody Allen.

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