Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Sheryl Lee, Ken Stott, Paul Schneider, Woody Allen (narrator)
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking
Running Time: 96
Date: 07/15/2016

Café Society (2016)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hollywood Snares

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I sometimes feel like I, as well as many of my colleagues, are in a bit of a rut when it comes to reviewing Woody Allen's latest movies. Like many of them, I am a longtime fan. I first discovered his movies when I was a teenager; Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was one of the life-changing moviegoing events of my life. As I became a journalist, it was thrilling getting to review his movies as they came out, but essentially what I ended up doing was comparing the new movie to whatever worked or didn't work in Allen's previous films. At times, it seemed like Allen was entering new phases of his career, trying new things, allowing himself to change, which was exciting. Other times, as with the new Café Society, it's hard to know just what to say.

I could say that Allen is indulging in nostalgia once again, or that it features yet another May-December romance. Others might say that it's a lazy effort that feels more like a movie dashed off to fulfill an annual quota rather than a movie that had something on its mind. Taking all that for what it's worth, here's what we have. It's the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, a New York Jew who tires of his father's business and decides to try his hand at Los Angeles. He has an uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who is a powerful agent in Hollywood, and after several failed attempts at a meeting, he manages to land a kind of job as a glorified assistant. Uncle Phil assigns his own secretary, Vonnie (short for Veronica) (Kristen Stewart) to look after him, and Bobby falls madly in love with her. Vonnie already has something going on, but finds herself intrigued by Bobby's nervous, kindhearted charms. It all leads to a painful love triangle that spans more time and more locations. Bobby returns to New York, where he marries another beauty (Blake Lively) -- also called Veronica -- and becomes a kind of greeter in a nightclub run by his gangster brother (Corey Stoll). There the past comes back to bite him.

The first thing to notice here is that the movie is shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, a triple Oscar-winner who usually works with Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, The Last Emperor), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart) and Warren Beatty (Reds, Dick Tracy). Storaro brings great beauty to all of his shots, whether it be Hollywood mansions or the interior of the nightclub, or simply Bobby's meager apartment, where the electricity fails just after Vonnie comes to visit, bathing them both in a faint purple glow. We can assume that this beauty is meant to be both alluring and deceptive, since the dream world Bobby occupies rarely seems to yield results in his real life.

A big part of the movie is the concept of name-dropping, of getting close to glamour and glory, without actually attaining it. Vonnie takes Bobby on a sight-seeing tour of Hollywood, showing him the fabulous mansions of the rich and famous, with both of them asserting that they don't really want that for themselves. Uncle Phil is constantly talking about his clients; just about every 1930s star and director you can think of is mentioned at some point. The film seems to teeter between the allure of fantasy and the acceptance of reality, never quite coming to grips with either thing. And, of course, fantasy can extend to romance, as well as hobnobbing with stars at fabulous palaces. Bobby's two women are both beautiful, but he's never quite satisfied with one or the other, or, vice-versa: the women are never quite satisfied either.

Now for the comparison part, to see if we can trace where Allen is coming from. In two of his best recent films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, he seems to have tackled some of these same issues with more clarity. In the former, the filmmaker seemed to find acceptance more appealing than longing, as if acceptance could lead more fruitfully to happiness. In the latter, nostalgia was shown to be nothing more than that, a longing for a sugarcoated vision of the way things were, while excusing the bad sides of things. Cafe Society seems to be both simpler and more complex. The nostalgia here is not so easily debunked; it's beautiful, but still slightly sour. And acceptance isn't quite so easy, either... Bobby's nightclub job is both a concession -- he's back in New York working with his family -- but also glamorous, allowing him to hold certain power over the rich and famous. Yet I think that Allen is still trying to tackle these two themes, in his own way, and perhaps in an ever more complex way.

The movie isn't quite so inspired when it comes to certain details. The world of Hollywood is effectively represented, but though Corey Stoll does his best, the world of New York gangsters feels silly. Some of the jokes and the religious discussions feel pilfered from earlier films, not so much an expansion of certain ideas, but merely a repeating of them. And, frankly, for a comedy, this is probably one of Allen's least funny efforts. But, in the end, I think there's enough here to make Cafe Society worth seeing. Mainly, there's the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart -- this is their third time together as an onscreen couple, after Adventureland and American Ultra -- and they have a genuine sweetness, a kind of awkward, open-hearted feeling that I found truly touching. It leads me to believe that, whatever else Allen may or may not be wrestling with in his life, he's likely still a romantic, and that's enough.

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