Cafe Society Review

Posted: December 14, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

cafe-societyWritten by Daniel Simpson

The conventional wisdom about Woody Allen is that he is a great writer and director with many great movies to his name, but that his frequent output has led to Allen being really inconsistent. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that narrative. While it’s true that the sheer quantity of Allen’s work has led to a lot of middling films amidst his masterpieces, the fact is most of Allen’s work is pretty solid and at the very least prove to be an enjoyable watch. At this point I’ve seen 22 of Allen’s directed works and I wouldn’t say I full-on dislike any of them. Even his lesser efforts have still been rewarding in one sense or another. Allen’s newest film, the period drama Café Society, is also probably destine to go down as one of Allen’s lesser works, but there’s still some good to be found here.

The film is set in the 1930s and follows a young New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who travels out to Hollywood seeking a change. He takes a job as a glorified errand boy for his talent agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and in the process meets a charming young secretary named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Bobby is smitten with her and Vonnie starts to return those feelings despite seeing someone else. The film observes the two as their relationships unfold and their lives change.

Perhaps what’s most striking about Café Society are the visuals, which are a lot more prominent than in most Woody Allen films. Allen may have made other period pieces before, but few have had the attention to detailed costumes and sets as this one. The film has a larger budget than Allen projects tend to and that money can be seen on screen. This is a nice looking movie and the sets in particular are quite elegant. Allen has also tapped legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and that alone does elevate the film. Storaro gives the film a very lush look that really emphasizes the glamour and beauty of old Hollywood. It’s a colourful film which is wonderful to look at and the romantic visuals are a pleasant change when so many other films underscore their melancholy with cold blues.

From a content perspective, there is little here that will surprise anyone familiar with Allen’s work. Common tropes of neuroticism, Jewish identity, love for New York City and old Hollywood, and strained relationships reoccur here. These are all ideas that Allen has explored before, and indeed that he’s explored better, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be found in Café Society. Though the film is not one of Allen’s more comedic efforts, there is still a good deal of wit and some amusing moments. Additionally, the film’s musings on relationships are interesting. I’ve always liked Allen’s nuanced and honest approach to relationships and he does a good job not turning any of the various parties here into villains. Rather, all of the characters are just people trying to find happiness. The love triangle at the film’s set-up offers a solid exploration regarding choices and regret, but I don’t think the film totally nails this arc. Rather, the film is distracted by certain side elements, like a subplot involving Bobby’s criminal brother (played by Corey Stoll) which takes up a lot of screentime but never fully integrates with the main story, or moments like an early scene between Bobby and a hooker (Anna Camp), which is funny but kinda pointless. Neither of these things are bad, or even unenjoyable, it’s just that the film’s elements don’t come together fully.

Allen has always had a skill with actors and while nobody in Café Society is likely to win any awards, everyone does pretty solid work. Jesse Eisenberg takes the surrogate Woody Allen and in a lot of ways he’s an ideal choice. Eisenberg’s screen presence has often been that of someone who is awkward and neurotic so in this role it feels less like a Woody Allen impression and more like Eisenberg doing his shtick. Kristen Stewart also makes for a charming presence. There is also a lot of fun to be found in the supporting cast. Corey Stoll is really entertaining as Bobby’s criminal brother. He’s both kind but also has the perfect demeanor for 30s gangster. In fact all of the characters in Bobby’s family are pretty likable and are brought to life by some charming performances.

There is a lot of good things in Café Society, but most of it comes with the asterisk that Allen has done similar work better before. As such, I’m not sure I’d recommend this to anyone who isn’t familiar with Allen’s work as they’d be better off with any number of his classic films. Still, for what it is, Café Society is a perfectly solid little movie with some witty moments and musings on relationships. It’s no classic, but it’s a fine way to spend 90 minutes, particularly if you’ve already seen Allen’s heavy hitters.


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