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USA 2016
Directed by
Woody Allen
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Cafe Society

Synopsis: Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) flees his father’s Bronx jewelry 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. Vonnie’s boyfriend breaks up with her but after a brief affair with Bobby she returns to him and Bobby returns to the Bronx where he goes into business with his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). Through socialites Rad and Steve (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) he meets and marries Veronica (Blake Lively). But the memory of Vonnie is never far from Bobby’s mind.

You’ve got to hand it to Woody Allen, he has an outstanding ability to recycle his ideas, reassembling, as he does, year after year with clockwork punctuality, his stock of  themes, characters, settings, golden age jazz songs and witty lines of dialogue.  Whilst ultimately the outcome dependss on Allen’s talent as a writer-director, a considerable portion of it is down to his well-oiled team of helpers such as editor Alisa Lepselter and production designer Santo Loquasto, whose work is enhanced by top drawer cinematographers such as here, Vittorio Storaro, and a changing roster of high profile actors.

The resulting configurations are more or less engaging but even when, as is the case here, they are more engaging than not, you can’t help but be underwhelmed, Thanks to Loquasto and Storaro Café Society looks gorgeous but it’s also facile, yet another journeyman effort that revisits, though with less élan, his best effort in his retro mode, Radio Days (1987).

If the production quality is unimpeachable the tale of star-crossed-love feels glib, particularly with Allen’s favourite story-telling device of voice-over narration (by Allen himself), substituting the 1920’s expatriate Paris name-dropping of Midnight in Paris (2011) for studio-era Hollywood of the ‘30s name-dropping as it maneouvres its characters through its typically neatly-turned story.

Usually one can rely on Allen for his novel characterisations but with the exception of the early part of the film when we meet Bobby’s working class Jewish family and he engages the services of a novice Jewish hooker most of the characters are bland.  The casting of Eisenberg and Stewart does the film no favours in this respect.  Although the former adopts the stooped shoulders and diffident willingness to please of the familiar Allen schlemiel, Bobby is actually a pretty-smooth operator and Eisenberg is unable to stop the two conflicting impulses cancelling each other out, He’s like a man in a suit two sizes too big  - you can’t stop wondering why. And if Stewart is captivating as the girl-next-door who sends Bobby’s heart aflutter, the relationship between her and Steve Carell’s Hollywood player is entirely mechanical.  Not only does Carell seem completely unconvinced of Stewart’s charms, if Phil was so taken with Vonnie, we wonder, why would he turn her into a Hollywood fur-swathed, diamond-dripping wife let alone why would she allow it? These are not failures of performance but of writing.  

As ever one can only wish that Allen would spend more time trying to turn out a film that was thoughtful and original rather than rushing another ho-hum yarn into production. Café Society is not a bad film.  In its own terms it’s quite entertaining. But it will appeal most to those with limited familiarity with the Allen house style.




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