It is time again for Woody Allen’s annual movie, a prospect that can be hit, miss or somewhere in between. It’s good to report that his latest, Café Society, while not Allen’s greatest, is certainly his best and most entertaining since 2011’s Oscar-winning Midnight In Paris. As I say in my video review above, it is a complete delight from start to finish, deliciously sophisticated and funny.
Set in the glamorous life of Hollywood in the 1930s as well as the New York nightclub scene of that era, this sumptously designed blast to the past centers on Allen’s latest cinematic alter ego, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who leaves his Bronx life to try his luck in Hollywood. This brings Allen back to the sunny clime of Southern California, a place he doesn’t often shoot but when he does, as in 1977’s Best Picture winner Annie Hall, it leads to biting and memorable comic results — in this case right into the midst of Hollywood’s Golden Era, a place Allen seems to relish taking on.
Arriving in L.A., the only person Bobby knows is his Uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a hot-shot agent who drops names from Adolphe Menjou to Judy Garland to Ginger Rogers like there is no tomorrow. Phil gives him some work and gets his attractive assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, who is excellent) to show him the town and keep him occupied. Complications arise when Bobby falls head over heels for Vonnie, who likes him but is involved with an older married man. That man, unbeknownst to Bobby, turns out to be — you guessed it — Uncle Phil.
Eventually the action and timeline shifts back to New York City where Bobby is now working for his gangster brother Bennie running his ritzy nightclub called Café Society. There are more twists and turns as well as another romantic attachment — this time Veronica (Blake Lively). It’s best not to read a detailed plot description, but just let Allen take you on this nostalgic ride, beautifully photographed by the legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apolcalypse Now), working for the first time with Woody. Allen has said his goal with Café Society was to put a novel on film. The roving plot has exactly that kind of feel, but at its heart is a character-driven Woody Allen concoction, a welcome addition to a remarkable film legacy.
Although Allen’s script is full of the kind of zingers and amusing observations we usually get from the prolific filmmaker, it is this perfectly chosen cast that really makes the lines sing. Eisenberg, in role tailor-made for Allen’s unique brand of dialogue and humor, is the ideal Bobby, completely believable and sharply delivering one gem after another. Stewart totally is believable as the object of both Carell’s and Eisenberg’s affections, and she doesn’t miss a beat. Carell is deadpan funny, taking this agent very seriously and never resorting to shtick. As usual, there is a great supporting cast of women from Lively to Parker Posey — a hoot as good friend Rad Taylor. Jeannie Berlin is right on mark as Bobby’s very New York and sensible mother. The music, as in all Allen films, is full of great standards perfectly setting the mood for this must-take tour of a different side of Hollywood and New York during The Depression. No one seems to be hurting in this film.
Café Society was the opening-night film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and now is being launched domestically Friday through Amazon and Lionsgate. Producers are Letty Aronson , Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson.
Do you plan to see Café Society? Let us know what you think.