Film Review: ‘Café Society’

Cafe Society
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart pair off in Woody Allen's beautiful-looking but overly familiar Hollywood love triangle

Going into a new Woody Allen film, there’s always the hope that it’s going to be major, like “Blue Jasmine,” and not one of his trifles, like the Allen movies that have opened the Cannes Film Festival in recent years (“Hollywood Ending,” “Midnight in Paris”). At this point, however, his track record vastly favors the probability that it’s going to be a trifle, at which point the question then becomes: Will it be one of his good ones — that is, one of those Allen fables that really sings? “Café Society,” starring Jesse Eisenberg as a sweetly naïve Bronx nebbish who journeys to Hollywood in the 1930s to seek his fortune, has been made with all the verve and high-style panache and star magnetism of a small-scale Allen gem. Yet the film, watchable as it is, never quite overcomes the sense that it’s a lavish diagram working hard to come off as a real movie. With intermittent romantic sparks struck between Eisenberg and his co-star, a poised and glowing Kristen Stewart, “Café Society” is likely to draw a larger swath of the Allen audience than his last two, “Magic in the Moonlight” and “Irrational Man.” But there may be a limit to its success, since it’s one of those Allen films that keeps talking about passion instead of actually making the audience feel it.

Eisenberg, looking handsome in wide-pleated pants and a curly pompadour, is the latest in a long line of actors who have been given the obvious directive to channel Allen’s onscreen spirit. But he does a more appealing job of it than most, because the Eisenberg mannerisms – the antic verbal dexterity, the slight sputter of people-pleasing insecurity – match up so organically with Allen’s own. Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, who arrives in Hollywood looking to get a job in the office of his uncle, Phil (Steve Carell), a veteran agent so powerful that he can’t turn around at a pool party without being badgered about some deal he’s negotiating for Ginger Rogers or William Powell. We suspect — or maybe hope — that Phil is going to be the oily player who lures Bobby into his world of corrupt glamor, but Carell, looking appealingly fleshy, plays Phil as a busy, babbly Type A mensch who gives his nephew errands to run and finds the time to introduce him to all the right people.

One of those is Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart), a willowy but disarmingly level-headed former ingénue who claims to reject the Hollywood game. She takes Bobby on an impromptu tour of celebrity mansions, and they discuss the larger-than-life quality of movie stardom, which prompts Vonnie to insist: “I think I’d be happier being life-size.” Stewart makes you touch the reality of that line. She sheds some of her own halting mannerisms to play a woman of warmth who, with a twinkle, holds her ardor close to the vest, and the mood of quiet confidence fits the actress beautifully. It’s that quality that attracts the guileless Bobby, and it isn’t long before puppy love ensues.

There’s a twist, of course: Vonnie already has a boyfriend — and that lover, it’s revealed early on, is none other than Uncle Phil, who has promised to abandon his wife and marry Vonnie. There’s nothing very original about this love-triangle dilemma, especially in a Woody Allen film, where it directly mirrors so many of the setups in his earlier work, notably the adulterous tangle of “Manhattan.” The question is: Where will he take it this time? And the answer turns out to be: not somewhere very interesting. Carell’s Phil, even though he’s betraying his wife, is portrayed as such a victim of his own romantic devotion that it’s hard to root against him — and Vonnie, in fact, insists that she loves both men.

There’s a hint of novelty in the way this plays out against a lusciously visualized period-Tinseltown backdrop. And, indeed, Vittorio Storaro’s scrumptious, dark-toned cinematography is so breathtaking that it almost seems to be telling a story of its own. Storaro, that maestro of color and shadow, turns the wood-paneled offices and restaurants into an Art Deco daydream, and when Bobby and Vonnie are seated in Bobby’s motel room and the electricity goes out, the sudden illumination-by-candlelight looks like something out of “Barry Lyndon.” Every shot in “Café Society” glows with lustrous classicism. Yet all of this just makes you wish that Allen had brought the Old Hollywood setting to life with a richer sense of drama and play, the way that the Coen brothers did recently in “Hail, Caesar!”

If you’re wondering what the title means, “Café Society” refers to the high life back in New York City, where Bobby returns after being spurned by Vonnie. He goes to work in the nightclub owned by his cliché gangster of a brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), and he supposedly finds his place among the swells, but it’s hard to escape the slightly disappointing sense that the movie is starting all over again. And this time, more than ever, it’s telling rather than showing. Allen has chosen to narrate the film himself, which seems like a harmless enough gambit, but his voice, after a while, begins to sound almost syrupy with didactic melancholy, and we can’t help but notice that a lot of the stuff he’s telling us — Bobby gets to know politicians and gangsters! He becomes a man of the world! — should, in fact, have been the very substance of the movie’s plot. Eisenberg’s likable performance never gets a chance to grow; the character development mostly comes down to the fact that in the nightclub, he starts wearing a white tuxedo. He remains that same sweet kid, pining away. By the end, that seems to be the point: that a great many people walk around carrying the ghosts of love – a dream of what might have been. But that’s a message we need to feel in our hearts, rather than our heads, if it’s going to haunt us. Mostly, “Café Society” leaves you dreaming of the movie it might have been had Woody Allen made it by doing what he’s done in his best work: nudging himself out of his comfort zone.

Film Review: 'Café Society'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (opener), May 11, 2016. Running time: 96 MIN.    

Production

An Amazon Studios release of a Gravier Prods. presentation of a Perdido production. Produced by Letty Aaronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson. Executive producers, Ron Chez, Adam B. Stern, Allan Teh.  

Crew

Directed, written by Woody Allen. Camera (color, HD), Vittorio Storaro; editor, Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; art directors, Michael E. Goldman, Doug Huszti; costume designer, Suzy Benzinger; visual effects supervisor, Erin Dinur; assistant director, Danielle Rigby.

With

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey.  

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  1. After watching Cafe Society I have to say that Woody Allen is back. After a few flops (Irrational Man, Magic in the Moonlight or To Rome With Love, just to mention a few examples), Woody Allen comes back in full form with a charming romantic drama/comedy, as he has accustomed us to. I think the success of the movie rests in that Woody Allen returned to do something more like Midnight in Paris than in the above mentioned flops. The movie is set between the West (Los Angeles) and East (New York) coast in the 1930s. So, what in Midnight in Paris was the European cultural elite of the 20s, in Cafe Society has been replaced by Hollywood in the 30s. The movie in essence has the typical features of a Woody Allen movie: a neurotic lead who is an alter ego of the real Woody Allen, complicated love relationships, existential debates, jazz music and even some cultural snobbism. In this movie, all this elements fit very nicely to create a pleasant film that is very nice to watch.

  2. Anne says:

    Besides disagreeing with this reviewer about Stewart’s talent (Her one monologue/story scene was cringlingly uncomfortable), I mainly disagree about his views about “Midnight In Paris”. This movie is amazing, AMAZING – not a trifle at all. Just wanted to put that out there. Romance and historical artists make an incredible combination.

  3. Sylvia Cohen says:

    Saw this movie today and loved it. I’m really glad I don’t pay attention to reviews

    By the way, it’s a good thing I didn’t read the review before I saw it being that you told the whole story.

    • suz says:

      I loved it too, and was kinda ready to hate it, it was delightful and beautiful as well. I give it a solid A. I can’t stand Stewart or Jessie, but even they could not ruin this lovely film for me. Go see it folks.

  4. Bjorn Nitmo says:

    Owen Gleiberman, and any other reviewer that casts adoring glances at any endeavor by Mr. Allen, must have to do some smooth rationalization with themselves in order to sleep at night. The whole “we must look at the art, not the artist” rationale withers on the intellectual vine the second a person considers Woody’s own admission (in the documents from his divorce from Mia), that he was in treatment for an unhealthy attraction to children.
    Shame on any talent that works with this man, or indirectly, any writer that warmly places more coins in this elderly deviant’s moldy pocket. The whole “detachment” routine has grown tiresome. “For evil to prevail”, eh, Owen?

  5. Marina says:

    Every shot is too crisp and clean. Sad that Allen abandoned film for this digital trifle. I’d rather see the story of the gangster brother.

  6. The one abiding truth: critics never pay to see movies…and…never watch them twice before writing their reviews. As well as the passing of time often changes minds.

  7. What a beautiful review. Too bad about the movie; I love Allen. But the review was worth it :-)

  8. lana says:

    ooooooohhhhhj really TROLLLLLL she can’t act????? that’s your more biggest pain in all world see that always she is aclaimed for her role. if you can’t see that is because your a hater that way every single day in every site to stewart GROWN UP , GET A LIFE AND LET TO BE A DEMON IN BASEMENT THAT SEE ALLL KRISTEN DO ITTTTT !!!!!!!! Oh a advice take anti-acid cause every year kristen gonna be bigger and better over and over and you gonna cry in EVERYYYYYY WEB SITE over and over again, she’s good actress winner so many awards and aclaimed for critics, learn to accept your fail.

  9. Rosada says:

    I LOVED Midnight in Paris. I didn’t want it to ever end. I wish Woody would make a sequel.

  10. miaeagle says:

    a very perceptive review from Owen…

  11. Bond says:

    “Midnight In Paris”.. Budget.. 17 Million… Box Office.. Over 150 Million… Probably the most successful Woody Allen film ever.. but just a mere trifle!

  12. She still can't act says:

    Stewart “sheds some of her own halting mannerisms,” yeah buddy, but not all of them. You can see from just the trailer she’s still blinking like a hummingbird and doing that deep exhale thing she does when she says a line of dialog. Shaking her head, playing with her hair, she’s still employing most of her same of tired tics.

    She can’t create a real character, she just plays some version of herself, showing zero range. I think this might be the most she’s ever stretched, and still, it’s not much of a stretch. She does nothing to modulate her voice or use an accent, she can’t do accents and her voice is always the same. Other reviews have pointed out that her romantic scenes in this film are “unconvincing,” and flat.

    I’m tired of seeing her declared such a great actress when in reality, her PR team is the one who should be winning awards for selling this limited actress as more than she is.

  13. Selma says:

    WHAT? Midnight in Paris a triffle???? You are on crack, mister.

  14. CJB says:

    Another hack who wishes and/or thinks they could make a film.
    Midnight in Paris is and will always be of far more merit than anything Mr. Gleiberman ever produces.

  15. Enrique Godinez says:

    Midnight In Paris a triffle? What?

  16. BillUSA says:

    The entertainment protectorate is in full swing here as they clear the road for another film by pedophile Woody Allen. The entertainment industry is simply a filthy truckstop toilet.

  17. pavlov65 says:

    “Midnight in Paris” a “trifle”?
    Sorry, Mr. G., but that’s not even debatable.

  18. Ben says:

    Eisenberg remains consistently annoying, and he always seems like the kid from the old days with pocket protector that wants to imagine himself something much more..and handsome uh no.

  19. Mark says:

    trifle – “a thing of little value or importance.”

    Midnight in Paris???

  20. Mike says:

    “Eisenberg looking handsome…” C’mon, Owen, great to see you again but I don’t think even his mother considers him handsome.

    • Marie says:

      Don’t be an @ss

      • Tom says:

        Blue Jasmine was indeed a superb film. I will certainly be seeing this, but because of Woody not Mr. Eisenberg. I’ve always found his nerdism to be put on and phony. I doubt this will change my mind.

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