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USA 2016
Directed by
Woody Allen
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars

Cafe Society

Synopsis: Seeking more out of life than just working in the family business, Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) flees his father’s jewellery store for 1930’s Hollywood where he gets a job working for his high-powered agent uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell). He soon falls for Phil’s charming assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) but she’s involved with another, so he must settle for friendship. When Vonnie’s boyfriend breaks up with her, Bobby asks her to marry him but the situation suddenly changes and Bobby returns to the Bronx where he goes into business with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Swept up in the vibrant world of nightclub life he forms a strong friendship with socialites Rad and Steve (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) through whom he meets Veronica (Blake Lively). But the memory of Vonnie is never far from Bobby’s mind.

Veteran filmmaker Woody Allen is a prolific writer/director and, even if his early and mid-career films that shine more brilliantly than his later works, I live in hope that he’s got at least one great film still left in him. Café Society isn’t it but it’s a darn sight closer to the mark than almost any Allen film I’ve seen in the last twenty years (I hasten to add that somehow, to my shame, I missed seeing Blue Jasmine but I will rectify that post haste).

Allen is in familiar territory with this film. It’s nostalgic, it’s romantic, it’s painful in its heartbreaks and light and optimistic in its moments of happiness. His dialogue is direct, unembellished and unambiguous but, most importantly, when it’s meant to be funny, it’s funny, and that hasn’t been the case for a while now. In many ways, this film revisits the style and sensibilities of some of Allen’s earlier successes. There are echoes of films like Manhattan (1979), Radio Days (1987), the 1920’s scenes in Midnight in Paris (2011) (which I would say are the better moments of a not-very-good film) and even a little touch of Broadway Danny Rose (1984). This is not to say that it’s an entirely derivative film. Allen brings these resonances of earlier works together with charm and style in a way that feels both familiar and original in its insights into human relationships.

Yes, we still have the older man infatuated with the younger woman, but we also have the young man experiencing love for the first time (and with a woman his own age!). Given that Allen’s films are almost always explorations into his own attitudes towards life and relationships, this story feels like he is reflecting back over his life upon different types of love: youthful, innocent naivety; middle-to-older age desire; and finally, longing for what the younger self had. We often see actors cast in a role that is essentially playing ‘Woody’. Here it may be that Eisenberg plays the Woody of his youth whilst Carrell plays the more mature Woody. Either way, their stories are framed by Woody’s real voice who narrates the whole affair for us.

As always, Allen has surrounded himself with exceptionally talented artists. The cast is excellent and surprisingly (to me, at least) Eisenberg gives a performance that feels more like acting than just playing himself. Perhaps it’s the period setting that restricts him from falling into the speech and mannerism patterns that so regularly define his work. Carrell continues his transition from a comedian who can act to a fine actor who comes from a comedic background and Stewart too keeps proving to us that she’s so much more than Bella in the Twilight saga. But the talents in this film are not limited to the cast. Production design by Santo Loquasto and art direction by Michael E Goldman and Doug Huszti are lush and glorious and the costumes by Suzy Benzinger are to die for – all shot exquisitely by legendary cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro. And, as you might expect, the jazz music on the soundtrack (and performed in some of the nightclub scenes) is as good as it gets. I don’t know that I’d go as far as to call this a return to form for Woody Allen, but I do know that I look forward to his next film more than I have in a long, long time.

 

 

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