Movie Review: Café Society

Woody Allen returns to Hollywood's Golden Era for a look at the glamorous set on both coasts

Café Society 
Directed by Woody Allen
With Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Corey Stoll, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott

Woody Allen has been making films since 1965, and his fans know what to expect. He has done riffs on a handful of themes, as if his whole career is study sketches of a giant work in progress. His latest film, Café Society brings together most of his major themes in a New Wave-style bittersweet slice of life. There is the love of old Hollywood, bittersweet romance, Jewish life in the Bronx, a humorous look at crime and the lure of Manhattan.

There is no plot as such, just a series of events in the life of a character standing in for a much younger version of Woody Allen, who is now 80 years old. Woody Allen narrates the film but does not appear in it.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man who like Woody Allen was raised in the Bronx. The film takes place in the 1930s, one of Woody Allen's favorite eras. He has taken the audience to the time between the wars before in Radio Days, Bullets over Broadway, The Purple Rose of Cairo and the Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Bobby is bored with life in the Bronx and wants to give Hollywood a try and goes to work for his uncle Phil, an important agent (Steve Carell). Bobby falls for Phil's secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). After a while, though, Bobby decides to return to New York and run a nightclub for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll).

The film's main drawback is Eisenberg, who doesn't manage to make Bobby as charming as he is supposed to be — everyone comes to the New York nightclub because of Bobby, but Eisenberg never shows us why. He especially falls short in an early scene where he is in Hollywood and hires a call girl, only to become flustered when she turns out to be a nice person doing the job for the first time. A much younger Woody Allen would have made the scene hilarious. Eisenberg just makes it rather awkward.

Kristen Stewart, in a role that might have been played by a younger Diane Keaton, also is a bit bland as the love interest. This is the third film pairing Eisenberg and Stewart, but they just don't create sparks as a screen couple.

Steve Carell, however, does bit better as the Hollywood agent, managing to poke a bit of fun at the Hollywood lifestyle. He replaced Bruce Willis, who actually shot a few days of the role but was fired. Actually, it is hard to picture Willis in the role, but his forceful personality might have added the push that the film is lacking. All of the main leads are a bit too laid back.

The gangster brother Ben adds a bit of interest, putting the family in a moral dilemma as they appreciate his help but turn a blind eye to where his money comes from. Corey Stoll manages to get a few laughs somehow, even as he pours cement over someone who crossed him. His role is small, though. Parker Posey also turns up and adds a much needed bit of attitude, but she is also a minor character.

While the loosely constructed story has its share of humor, there is an old man's sense of bitter regret running through the plot as well. The love story that decades ago might have worked out differently still seems to haunt the elderly narrator. While he looks back with a bit of humor, it seems just to be a cover up for his real feelings of loss.

The best part of the film is the re-creation of the glamorous high society of the 1930s on both coasts — parties where Greta Garbo might show up but doesn't. No stars of the era are actually seen. The parties are filled with writers, agents and studio executives on the West Coast, while the New York nightclub attracts politicians, phoney nobility, industrial heirs and other social aristocrats. This is contrasted with a few scenes with Bobby and Ben's parents, who still live in relative poverty in the Bronx.

Experiencing the feeling of the era is the main reason to see the film, which while not one of Allen's best certainly isn't his worst. But with stronger leads, though, it could have been a classic.

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