In the 1930s, Bronx-born Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) travels to Hollywood, where he falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), the secretary of his powerful uncle, Phil Stern (Steve Carell), an agent to the stars. After a failed attempt at both love and a career in the film industry, Bobby returns to New York, where he is swept up in the vibrant world of high society nightclub life and meets another Vonnie (Blake Lively).
Review by Louise Keller:
The intricacies of the characterisations, the settings and mood are wonderfully textured in Woody Allen's usual style, although as a complete work, Cafe Society treads water. Allen's assuming the role of narrator is self-indulgent: the narration is far too wordy and we told things in prose that we should discover from the action. The time jumps also distance our emotional involvement. That aside, there is much to enjoy, with a multi-pronged plot whose themes involve love, adultery, jazz and murder. The 30s Hollywood setting weaves a rich tapestry as it offers contrasts with New York glamour, celebrity and notoriety. Religion, Jewishness and death also play a part, as does the central love story involving two men and one woman whose tangled web relationships form the heart of the tale.
When we first meet Jesse Eisenberg's Bobby Dorfman, the naive protagonist from the Bronx, who moves to Hollywood, it is easy to imagine this is a role that Allen would have played himself in years gone by. It's a familiar character, filled with insecurities and neuroses (Eisenberg is well cast), although by the time he returns to New York, his transformation into a confident man-about-town is somehow too fast and unconvincing. I felt cheated that I did not see the transition. The love story between Bobby and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, lovely) develops beautifully but there is trouble in paradise, with news of another man in the picture. Stewart has always been impressive (she played Jodie Foster's 12 year old daughter in Panic Room in 2002) and now after having put the ghost of Twilight's Bella behind her, exudes a special beauty that is both internal and external.
The essence of 30s Hollywood, complete with celebrity name dropping and parties in luxurious homes with lavish swimming pools is well captured as Bobby finds his feet as errand boy to his big-wig agent uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Bobby's return to New York and subsequent time jump jars somewhat as he becomes a mirror image of smooth-talking Phil, while playing host at his gangster uncle Ben's (Corey Stoll) upmarket nightclub. This is where we enter the Cafe Society. Here the colourful clientele is a mix of the underworld and the rich and famous. We get a real sense of being there, just as we do in the wonderful scenes amid Bobby's Jewish extended family that becomes conflicted about the repercussions of Ben's uncontrollable violent nature.
The ensemble cast (including the lovely Blake Lively and Parker Posey) works well and Allen's jazzy selection of music is irresistible. I defy you not to tap your feet. There are some great lines, fabulous imagery and gritty depiction of characters, and while the ending may not please everyone as characters and plot points are left somewhat untidily, that could well be Allen's point: life is never tidy.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Pleasing to the eye and the ear, Woody Allen's return to New York is a nonetheless patchy affair, born aloft by the seductive music of Rodgers & Hart, Johnny Mercer, Benny Goodman, and so on ... and the glorious production design that evokes an age of style and class and good taste and beauty ... but the characters are no shinier deep down than they are today. Hollywood is ego driven, as Phil Stern (Steve Carroll) says, an agent who plays into all our images of the stereotype Hollywood middle man.
Indeed, there are so many stereotypes it's hard to get excited by the journey of a young Jewish man from the Bronx getting a family contact in Hollywood ... and the characters he meets, or that make up his family.
The story is romantic nostalgia masquerading as romantic comedy, and Woody Allen tells it in his own words - as narrator. Too much so, in fact, a device that replaces the images that should be doing most of the talking. The result is a flat tyre of a screenplay, and a detachment from the characters in a dramatic sense.
Blake Lively is wonderful, though, vibrant and authentic as is Kristen Stewart. Jesse Eisenberg's Bobby Dorfmann is a muted character, and we never really feel like rooting for him, since he shows so little of the passion he is apparently feeling.
Enjoyable on a superficial level and attractively made, Cafe Society is not Woody Allen at his very best. As always, though, his sublime taste in music makes up for much of the lacklustre screenplay, which often seems like an insider's (slightly self indulgent) riff on old Hollywood.
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CAFE SOCIETY (M)
CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Sheryl Lee, Todd Weeks, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnow, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Corey Stoll
NARRATION: Woody Allen
PRODUCER: Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
SCRIPT: Woody Allen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Vittorio Storaro
EDITOR: Alisa Lepselter
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Santo Loquasto
RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: eOne
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 20, 2016