Café Society

The ideal Woody Allen movie: beautifully shot, cleverly written, and marvelously acted.
Movie Review #1,074


Distributed by Lionsgate and Amazon Studios. Comedy, Drama, Romance. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking. Released August 5, 2016. Directed by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, and Edward Walson.  Written by Woody Allen. Starring Steve Carell, Paul Schackman, Jesse Eisenberg, Corey Stoll, Kristen Stewart, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’lyn, Tyler Reid, Blake Lively, and Tony Sirico.

Woody Allen’s newest film, “Café Society”, is a collage of great performances. Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart both prove to us once again that when they’re dealing with serious performances, they’re fantastic. However, it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s talent that really shows. Of all the Woody Allens that have appeared onscreen, Jesse Eisenberg reincarnates the one we miss the most. That’s the first thing that makes “Café Society” such a great film. Allen’s script presents the very character that he himself used to play. The young, neurotic, awkward, Jewish New Yorker who existed during the 1970s and 1980s. Arguably, this character has been AWOL since “Deconstructing Harry” (1997). Kenneth Branagh tried to bring him back in 1998 in “Celebrity” but failed miserably. Recalling Eisenberg’s weak performance just four years ago in Allen’s “To Rome with Love”, I would’ve expected the same of his lead in “Café Society”. However, it’s just the opposite. Eisenberg’s interpretation of the classic Woody Allen is no impersonation. It’s a transformation.

Given that Allen operates on a one-film-per-year basis, it’s hard to predict whether the next film is going to be a hit or a miss. As with any of his best films, “Café Society” introduces a familiar plot in a completely new light. The film is anchored in 1930s Hollywood, and it certainly offers the genuinely old-timey feeling that we might imagine. The story revolves around a love triangle, consisting of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a young New York Jew trying to make it in Hollywood; his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a highly successful talent agent; and Phil’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). They seem to comprise an emotional triangle of sorts, as well. Bobby is heartbroken, Phil is confused, Vonnie is torn. In its most basic form, this is about a guy who loves a woman whom his uncle also loves. In execution, however, Allen’s newest film is never so basic. The story operates on a heavily intriguing and engrossing level, hysterically, and at times, quite poignantly.

“Café Society” is a beautiful movie, not just narratively but also visually. Vittorio Storaro enhances the narrative by painting a picture we’ve never seen in any Woody Allen movie: a bleak, dreary New York and a lively, sunny Los Angeles. We see these two cities as diametric opposites, amid the hero’s departure from the Big Apple to reap the opportunities in the City of Angels. As Allen’s first film shot digitally, the film also delivers strikingly. We haven’t seen this sort of visual poetry in a Woody Allen movie since “Manhattan”. Back in February, the prospects for “Café Society” were slightly worrying. The news that Allen had departed from Sony Pictures Classics after seven films, and had sold the distribution rights for his newest to Amazon Studios, who has so far only distributed two other films, was less than exciting. However, the results turn out to be all the more surprising.


2 thoughts on “Café Society

  1. Jesse Eisenberg’s stuttering rhythms and affectations are pure Woody Allen in his prime and it’s easy to see the director playing this role in 1977. Not Woody’s best but in a summer with one dud after another, this was better than most.

    • I agree about Jesse Eisenberg. He was fantastic. I tend to like Woody Allen’s movies more than most people do (hell, I even enjoyed Irrational Man, and some considered that the worst of his career), so that alone probably explains why I liked Café Society as much as I did.

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