Film review: Café Society

David Gritten / 01 September 2016

Woody Allen’s bitter-sweet romance is a treat on several levels.

At age 80, Woody Allen maintains his estimable rate of writing and directing a film each year. Not all of them find favour with the public or critics, but those that do confirm his enduring gifts for story-telling, wit and strong characters.

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Happily his latest, the bitter-sweet romance Café Society, is up there with his more recent successes: Blue Jasmine (2013), Midnight In Paris (2011) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). On several levels, it’s a treat.

It’s set mostly in Hollywood in the 30s – the industry’s Golden Age. Its young hero Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a naive, self-deprecating New Yorker, goes to Los Angeles to see if his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a brash, name-dropping agent to the stars, might have a job for him. Phil gives Bobby an entry-level position, but for him the real attraction at work is Phil’s delightful young assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

Bobby and Vonnie spend time together away from the office. He falls madly in love with her; she really likes him, but warns she has a married boyfriend. It’s no surprise who he turns out to be, but Allen adroitly sustains this romantic triangle adroitly for much of the movie.

Eventually Bobby returns to New York and takes a job working for his gangster elder brother, running his sophisticated nightclub. As for the front man at this watering hole for the Big Apple’s movers and shakers, Bobby’s power and influence increases. He even finds a delightful wife, Veronica (Blake Lively). But he cannot quite shake the memory of Vonnie.

As in all Allen’s films, characters verbalise their neuroses, fears and frustrations. But then several aspects of Café Society are familiar: Bobby’s rowdy, chaotic New York Jewish family recalls his autobiographical Radio Days. The gangster subplot has surfaced before, notably in Bullets Over Broadway. And, like many of his central characters, Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby is effectively a stand-in for Allen himself; Eisenberg certainly imitates his anxious, fast-talking speech patterns. Four decades ago, Allen would certainly have cast himself as Bobby.

If it’s recognisable Woody, Café Society has virtues of its own. For starters, it might be the most visually striking film of his career. Allen knows enough about movie-making to be aware that if you want a film to look ravishing, you call in the Italian masters: and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Santo Loquasto, both universally acclaimed, do sterling work here. Allen also knows how to deploy music to underpin a film’s mood. Here he leans heavily on Rodgers & Hart, whose gorgeous melodies and lyrics give Café Society its emotional focus: romantic, yearning and faintly melancholy.

Then there’s Kristen Stewart as the lovely Vonnie. Allen has always written strong roles for women, and cast actresses shrewdly: Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, of course, but more recently Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. If Stewart is his latest muse, then she’s very much up to the task. She effectively steals the film – and given its many virtues and other notable performances, that’s not exactly petty larceny.

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