Café Society


★★★

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stall, Anna Camp, Blake Lively

Film Review by Euan Franklin


Intellectual debate, beautiful women, Jewish tongue-in-cheek, awkward narcissism, and, of course, an unrelenting fear of death. These are the key characteristics of a Woody Allen movie. Nostalgia for remembered things past, on the other hand, is a theme Allen rarely visits – and when he does, it is with a light step. Its various manifestations appear in Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love, but never to the extent of Café Society – the latest in the Allen canon.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby Dorfman, a twenty-something from the Bronx, who abandons his life as a New York jeweller and moves to Golden Age Hollywood during the 1930s. He meets with his uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), a big-time movie agent who is completely disinterested in spending time with his nephew. To resolve this, he uses Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), his secretary, to give him a tour around Beverly Hills. Predictably, Eisenberg falls in love with Stewart but she is seeing another man.

The film is light on laughs, but high on charm. Eisenberg steps in a second time as a Woody Allen surrogate, possessing all the familiar idiosyncrasies that amuse and intrigue us. However, there are few scenes possessing the Wildean flair that makes his films so pleasing to watch. One in particular has Eisenberg’s character negotiate with a prostitute (Anna Camp) with that hilarious Allen awkwardness, but in many scenes it is not clear when we’re meant to be laughing. This is most prescient during random intercuts of Ben (Corey Stoll), shooting people dead in New York.


Café Society strains the line between comedy and drama, which is no bad thing in itself, but the balance wobbles like an uncertain see-saw. There are some notable examples in Allen’s oeuvre where the balance is perfect – Annie Hall, Manhattan, and even Crimes and Misdemeanors possess this desirable stability between the genres. However, like Irrational Man, we are not sure whether to laugh or squeal when heinous acts are committed on screen. In attempting to channel Martin Scorsese, Allen has lost sight of what makes him him. Stylised murder, we come to find, is not his style at all.

The chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg is as charming as the great character romances in Allen’s early work, but is also one of the most tragic. The end leaves you with melancholy thoughts of time gone by, about what is, and what could have been. Allen usually subjects his audience to discussions about death and mortality, but the pondering of one’s past and the regret that follows is not often explored to this extent. For a filmmaker who has made 46 films - all possessing similar and predictable flavours – it is refreshing to experience something different in the 47th.

Despite the scarcity of the Allen touch, there is an originality to Café Society that hasn’t been seen since Midnight in Paris. We linger with the characters far longer than is perhaps conventional – not in terms of run-time, but in terms of story. We see how they have changed and how they have stayed the same. The change is only an appearance, and the lack of change is buried deep into their hearts.

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