Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, and Blake Lively
So I preface this, as I do all of my Woody Allen reviews, with a statement of assured objectivity. Yes, I am a self-proclaimed Woody Allen fan, but I am not above delivering a negative review to projects that are worthy of one. It just so happens that there are few projects of Allen’s without redeeming quality. The trend continues with Café Society, Allen’s 41st film he has written, directed, and released within a year of his previous film.
In his 81st year of life, the director shows no sign of slowing down. His new deal with Amazon may be a catalyst, as Café Society is his first to be produced by the Internet giant, and it is his best film since 2013’s Blue Jasmine. It also arrives on the heels of his new Amazon produced television series, Crisis in Six Scenes, premiering this fall. Who would think the hardest working man in show-business would be 80?
For Café Society, Allen (who also narrates the film) takes us back to 1930s Hollywood where an agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is at the top of his game, representing all of the legendary talent of the time. Stern’s success is as massive as the distance he puts between himself and his family. Stern’s sister Rose Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin) lives in Brooklyn with her husband Marty (Ken Stott). When Rose contacts Phil with a favor that he give her youngest son Bobby (Jesse Einsenberg) a job in his firm, Phil reluctantly agrees to at least meet him, resulting in a familiar Woody Allen plot construct – “a tale of two coasts.”
Like every good Woody Allen movie, familiar plotting must be countered with memorable and well-designed characters. The lavishness of the Stern life is beautifully contrasted with the working class Dorfmans. Rose’s daughter Evelyn (Sari Lennick) maintains a middle class life with her philosopher husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken), and her oldest son Ben (Corey Stoll) quietly runs a pretty active mob syndicate (Bullets Over Broadway-style) unbeknownst to the rest of his family; his scenes are outstanding. That just leaves Bobby as the lost soul looking for his slice of happiness, and he quickly finds it in the form of Vonnie (Kirstin Stewart), his Uncle Phil’s beautiful assistant. Bobby falls for Vonnie at first sight and his advances towards her do not go unnoticed, although Bobby does have competition as Vonnie has a boyfriend. What follows is a more or less traditional exploration of whether all is truly fair in love and war but with some twists along the way. The predictability is nicely offset by the solid performances. Look out for Blake Lively in a small role later in the film that channels Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Performances aside, Allen has also made a visually gorgeous film with some beautiful scenery. Café Society marks Allen’s first digitally shot film, and he makes good use of the technology capturing some vintage Allenesque shots but with a new vibrant quality.
One criticism that is often laden on Woody Allen films is that his pace of production can throttle the work, preventing good films from being great due to time constraints. That may factor in with Café Society, but certainly not to the degree that I’m willing to part with the annual Woody Allen film. His cinematically nomadic spirit is something to appreciate, and it warms my heart to know that the moment Café Society premiered, his 2017 project was already announced, cast, and in pre-production. B+
Café Society is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 36 minutes.