With each year comes a few certainties – taxes, a new model iPhone, a Woody Allen movie. For decades now the 80 year-old Allen has maintained his ‘movie-a-year’ formula with varying degrees of success. His films have shown signs of evolving from tightly wound, exploratory character studies to more free-flowing, nostalgia-soaked wanderings. How it plays with audiences is always up for grabs.
“Café Society” is Allen’s 47th picture and you could say it’s about a lot of nothing. We nose in on the lives of a handful of people, listen to their conversations, witness their quirks, watch their unfolding relationships. That’s basically it. But there are things to glean from these seemingly insignificant interactions. Saying it’s about ‘nothing’ is a little strong, but no one will ever call it deep or profound.
The story is set in the 1930’s and its centerpiece is a young man named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s the youngest son of a Jewish family from the Bronx who wants no part of his dad’s jewelry business. So he packs his bags and heads to the star-studded wonderland of Hollywood. Once there he seeks out his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a pompous and powerful movie star agent. Phil gives him a menial job and introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby instantly falls for her.
Eisenberg and Stewart have a sparkling chemistry and Allen wisely milks it for much of the film’s first half. Their sprightly, youthful banter as they tour local movie palaces and quaint coffee shops is infectious. But it wouldn’t be a Woody Allen movie without some sort of weird relationship contortion which in this case leads to a pivot back to New York for the second half of the film.
Sprinkled in among the chronicles of Bobby and Vonnie are short scenes highlighting his family. Some are dinner table conversations between his parents (wonderfully played by Jeanne Berlin and Ken Stott). There is a reoccurring neighbor issue with his sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her high-strung intellectual husband (Stephen Kunken). And there are the antics of his gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll). The injections of the scenes can be a bit jarring, but I liked the characters and enjoyed their screen time.
Allen’s film wallows in nostalgia which is actually a strength. The set designs and costumes scream 1930’s authenticity. In the Hollywood segment we get numerous fun Golden Age name drops – Paul muni, Rudolph Valentino, Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, just to name a few. And the New York social scene of the time bubbles with pomp and energy in the second half.
And you can’t talk about “Café Society” without mentioning the cinematography. The film was exquisitely shot by the great Vittorio Storaro. Film buffs may remember his first American film being “Apocalypse Now”. This is Allen’s first film shot digitally and Vittorio Utilizes every ounce of the technology. It’s filled with gorgeous framing and vibrant colors that burst from the screen. It falls right in line with Allen’s recent emphasis on visually capturing location and time.
Perhaps “Café Society” strolls at its own pace and perhaps Woody Allen is in cruise control with his latter films. Still I had a lot of fun with this one. He once again drew me into his time capsule, caught me up in the nostalgia of the era, and surrounded me with characters who I simply enjoyed following. I certainly can’t defend this as some deep, layered character study. But I can call it a well-made and well acted piece of entertainment that I would say easily falls into the ‘good’ category of Woody Allen pictures.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Nice review Keith. Admittedly I’ve found much of Allen’s recent output to be very hit-or-miss, but I do want to see Cafe Society, mostly because of the cast and Storaro.
His latter films have been incredibly hit-or-miss. Midnight in Paris may be my favorite Allen film. But his very next film, To Rome with Love, was easily one of his worse. I liked Blue Jasmine and Magic in the Moonlight but really didn’t care for Irrational Man. This one is back on the good side of things but even it leaves plenty of room for criticism. Interested to see how you respond to it.
Wow, you definitely like this one much more than my friend who reviewed it for me. I’m not too fond of Woody Allen movies, though I adore Midnight in Paris. That said, I’m willing to give this one a go 🙂
I liked it though I can see where some may not go for its meandering. But while it isn’t profound the production is so good. It looks amazing and the performances are a lot of fun. I think if you go in with that approach you’ll find quite a bit of enjoyment here.
I liked this too – as you say it’s not really ‘about’ all that much, but it’s good fun, light and frothy and agree it looks great.
“light and frothy” is a great description. I was pretty much onboard with right from that beautiful opening tracking shot. I can see where someone may not be a fan, but I do see this falling on the ‘Good Woody’ side.
Great review Keith! I haven’t seen many Woody Allen movies at all, but this one looked interesting to me. There didn’t seem much of a plot but the cast list was wonderful, so I’m still looking forward to seeing this on DVD soon 🙂
Thanks Allie. The plot is fairly thin but the characters liven everything up. Woody is pretty hit-or-miss in this stage of career but this is a good one. Have you seen Midnight in Paris? It’s a favorite of mine. Absolutely magical.
I haven’t been much of a fan of Allen’s recent work, so it’s really interesting to read your thoughts on this one. Maybe I’ll have to check it out!
I’m up and down on his recent stuff. Loved Midnight in Paris. Liked Moonlight, Jasmine, and this one. Really disliked Rome and Irrational Man. He’s been like a roller coaster.
Great write up mate. This finally opened in Australia and I’m with you – the nostalgic setting drew me in, I loved it! Plus I seem to be one of few who likes Eisenberg! 😛
Random question – do you know where the artwork from this film came from? I haven’t seen it anywhere on the net but I noticed it straight away
That’s a really good question. You have me curious. I’m glad you guys finally got a look at it. There has been some mixed reactions over here but I’m definitely a fan.
Hint – Sunset Blvd 😉 I’m probably one of few who spotted it, as I watched Sunset not long after Cafe
Nice spot Jordan!
Do you remember it? The poster art of Cafe is exactly the same as one of the many, many pictures that the actress in Sunset had of herself. One is this abstract type one, you only see it for a second. But its the exact cover of this movie! ;D
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