Café Society reviewed by Mike Fishman
Another year, another Woody Allen film. Apparently having few interests other than directing films and playing clarinet, Mr. Allen has continued churning out his signature comedies at a regular pace, marking this as his 47th feature film since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? (though perhaps it’s more accurate to reference 1969’s Take the Money and Run as his first film of wholly original material) and his 17th since 2000 ushered in Small Time Crooks. Whether he has in him another great film like 2013’s Blue Jasmine remains to be seen but there is no doubt that his latest offering, Café Society, belongs firmly in the category of the majority of his late period oeuvre: often clever, generally interesting, but occasionally feeling rushed or unpolished. And so for every witty line we get in Café Society (“When a Jew cooks something, it’s always overcooked, because they want to kill all the germs”) there is dialogue too on-the-nose or just pretentious proclamations that might have generated laughs in his early comedies but here are delivered with too little irony. A running voiceover narration by Mr. Allen is unnecessary and at times oddly recounts what just transpired on-screen or tells us what we already know. It’s almost as if Allen adapted the screenplay from a work of fiction and just couldn’t bear to toss out the narration because he’s in love with the sound of the words. And with Allen not appearing in the film, the nagging question might well be asked, who is this narrator anyway?
But the wondrous elements of Allen’s best work are here in this tale of an uncertain young man from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg) trying his luck in Hollywood with the help of his agent uncle (Steve Carell) but falling in love with his uncle’s mistress (Kristen Stewart): the period music, the energetic editing, the evocative photography by the legendary Vittorio Storaro, here working digitally but softening the images to a golden glow (for more on that see: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/cinematographer-vittorio-storaro-filming-cafe-911441). And the setting of 1930’s Hollywood with its cars and gangsters, furs and handshake deals, should prove catnip to fans of classic Hollywood.
The love triangle, too, is more involving than we’ve seen from Allen in some time, with all three characters portrayed at various points having to respond to a sudden revelation of the other’s complicating involvement. Kristen Stewart as Vonnie, the love interest, has come a long way since the ancient history of the Twilight films and the unintended absurdities of Snow White and the Huntsman, and Café Society gives her more to work with than last year’s Equals, though that moody sci-fi was certainly a more ambitious film. Blake Lively, on the other hand, is given a pitifully small role in which she not surprisingly shines and it’s unfortunate Allen did not make more use of her. Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby, now appearing in his second film with the director, does excellent work as the expected Woody Allen surrogate (as usual for Allen a curiously not very likable main character) and calls to mind Tony Roberts, the always-great supporting actor in several of Allen’s earlier comedies. Steve Carell as Uncle Phil, the third wheel in the love triangle, is reined in here and like so many great comedians who have dabbled in dramatic roles (Albert Brooks, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Garry Shandling, Robin Williams to name a few), the more restrained, the better, the more power the funny man (not being funny) exudes.
The film ends on a refreshingly uncertain note with Vonnie and Bobby (did they really need to have rhyming names?) pining for each other while still committed to their marriages. Perhaps predictably, Bobby pines more than Vonnie, who seems perfectly fine with her marriage to the much older and wealthy Phil. As uncertainty exudes from Eisenberg’s puppy dog eyes, clearly not quite sure how much in love he still is with his wife, we might wonder if Allen is subconsciously (or otherwise) presenting his own view of women as more complacent creatures when it comes to marriages of convenience. In any case and despite its shortcomings, the film’s great period detail should transport viewers to an earlier time and help fill the gaps between the weak moments of the film and keep minds from wandering too far before the end.