Legendary filmmaker Woody Allen is often cited, both positively and negatively, for cribbing liberally from his own back catalogue. With his latest outing Café Society, which just debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, he’s instead opted to utilize the feel of his prior works, with fantastic results. Not only is this just a supremely entertaining lark, it’s easily Allen’s biggest crowd pleaser since Midnight in Paris. This movie is a love letter to both Hollywood in the 1930’s as well as the various social classes that existed in New York City at the same time. During the brisk 96 minute runtime of Café Society, I was reminded not just of Midnight in Paris, but also more vintage Woody flicks like Bullets Over Broadway, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days. It’s almost impossible to resist the charms of this one, which include incredible cinematography, consistent humor, and a winning turn by Kristen Stewart. To be fair, the first half is stronger than the second, and it’s a bit on the fluffy side, but this is the best we’ve seen from Allen in a few years. I suspect he’s going to once again be in the conversation for a Best Original Screenplay nomination, with Best Picture on the table and perhaps even a Best Supporting Actress citation for Stewart. However you slice it, Café Society is one of the better films of 2016 so far and an absolute delight.
The film follows New Yorker Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he decamps from the Bronx and heads west to Tinseltown to hopefully get a job in the business. The ace in his pocket is his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), who is a mover and shaker in the film industry. Some begging gets him a menial gig with Phil’s company, but it’s the introduction that Phil gives Bobby to secretary Vonnie (Stewart) which really sets things in motion. While Bobby meets Hollywood power players like Rad (Parker Posey) and her husband (Paul Schneider), he’s mostly concerned with wooing Vonnie, who likes him but currently only has eyes for another man. While this is going on in Los Angeles, back in New York the Dorfman clan keeps tabs on Bobby with letters back and forth. Things in the third act do move back east, with Bobby going in on a nightclub with gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll), but by and large this is a tale centered on the glitz of Hollywood and the power of love. Allen has tackled similar themes before, but this is hardly a retread, trust me there.
As is almost always the case with a film of Allen’s, there’s an impeccable performance by an actress here. Kristen Stewart has never come off as desirable and downright lovable as she does here. Never once do you doubt why she’s someone more than one character would fall head over heels in love with, and it’s to Stewart’s credit that she gives the role more dimension than just that. Stewart has her character a beacon of modesty amongst the glamour of Hollywood, more at ease with Bobby at a dive bar or on the beach than looking at the mansions of Beverly Hills. She aces the role and embraces Allen’s dialogue with ease. Jesse Eisenberg is quite good too, but he’s got previous experience in the types of worlds that Allen creates. This isn’t the normal Allen stand in role either, so there’s more for Eisenberg to play with than some other actors have gotten in previous years. Considering their history, it’s no surprise that Eisenberg and Stewart have phenomenal chemistry together, but it’s still lovely to witness. This is closer to Adventureland than American Ultra too, so rest easy their. You buy their romance, plain and simple. Steve Carell is strong as well, essaying a character who could have been just an over the top caricature, a guardian angel, or a stock villain, depending on the whims of the plot, but it’s quite pleasing to see that Allen and Carell weren’t interested in that. Carell gives us a complicated individual who easily could have anchored his own project. Frankly, I doubt that the original casting choice of Bruce Willis would have worked out, so all’s well that ends well there. In addition to the aforementioned Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, and Corey Stoll, who each are having a great time (with Posey and Stoll returning to work with Allen once again), the cast includes a scene stealing Anna Camp, a sadly underutilized Blake Lively, and the likes of Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, and more. Lively is somewhat wasted, but Carell, Eisenberg, and especially Stewart are top notch.
This is Woody Allen’s sharpest writing and direction in some time. In regards to the former, Café Society is littered with cute lines and jokes that consistently hit. One comedic highlight is a set piece involving Eisenberg’s character interacting with Camp’s character, a working girl who is new on the job. On the other side of the coin, I can’t remember a film of Allen’s looking this good since perhaps Manhattan. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro already has three Academy Awards on his mantle, but if he’s not at least in contention for a fourth, something is very wrong. The movie just has a glow about it. The look is luminous, the feel is romantic, and the pleasure exuding from it is palpable. Oscar voters have embraced Allen for less, so sleep on this one at your own peril.
A lot can happen over the course of the rest of the year, but I think we have a player in Café Society. Audiences over at Cannes are getting an initial chance to judge Allen’s latest before its July release date, but this strikes me as a contender in the mold of Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris. Time will tell, though until the fall, just take solace in this being a great new outing from a master director. Allen is in fine form and Café Society is a must see for fans of his work. As a big appreciator of Allen, this is vintage Woody and overall one of my ten favorite things so far this year.
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