Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Parker Posey
Released on 2nd September 2016
Let’s say you were going to wish for two nostalgic films about 1930s Hollywood to come out in the same year. Which directors would you choose?
Not that we’ve been given a choice this year, but Hail, Caesar! came from Joel and Ethan Coen, and now we have something in softer focus, from no less than Woody Allen. Pretty much ‘A’ listers, then. Although, to be honest, Café Society is only partly set in Hollywood, the rest of the film being in New York, but it is most certainly is a portrait of America in the 30s. Just painted in a different palette.
And it’s a story that could have come out of the big studios of the day. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) moves from Brooklyn to Hollywood, in the hope of getting a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a hot-shot movie agent. As he starts work, he’s also taken under the wing of Vronny (Kristen Stewart), who shows him around the town. He quickly falls for her, but she has a boyfriend, so the broken hearted Bobby eventually returns to New York, where he becomes the owner of a fashionable club and marries the beautiful Veronica (Blake Lively). Then Vronny walks into the club with her husband.
After the uneven Irrational Man, this is much more the Woody Allen that we know and love. So I’ll get its black mark out of the way first. The narrator. Not a problem in itself – in fact, it has a definite purpose, moving the story along at a nimble pace. But the voice is literally Woody Allen’s and voiceover is clearly not his thing: in your mind’s eye, you can see him stood in front of the mic, reading from the script. And when you find yourself doing that, it’s a seriously bad sign. Worse still, it sounds like it was an afterthought because, compared to the film’s otherwise crisp and witty screenplay, the narration creaks. There’s nothing wrong with having a narrator – but there is when it’s done like this.
Putting that to one side, there’s a lot to enjoy about Café Society. The cast is one of the main ones, with the bigger names listed at the start like an ensemble. In reality, they don’t work out that way, but that’s a fine point because there’s some really smart and thoughtful performances. Both of Eisenberg’s leading ladies turn in nicely judged performances, although it’s Kristen Stewart who wins the acting stakes as his first love. Initially full of youthful contempt for all things Hollywood – biting the hand that feeds her, if you like – she marries into the industry and comes back into Bobby’s life in her ostentatious finery and thick make-up. She looks awkward in it: it’s meant for somebody twice her age. But, then, she’s married somebody twice her age. Blake Lively’s Veronica is more sophisticated from the outset, but makes a willing wife and mother who gets a slight whiff of the fact that she’s been second best all along – and then puts it to the back of her mind. She can’t prove it, after all.
But the fascinating performance is from Eisenberg himself, full of youthful Jewish angst, almost as if he’s swallowed all of Allen’s earlier performances. Sure, he’s speaking Allen’s dialogue as well, but there’s more to it than that: it’s not just about the words, but the intonation, facial expressions, gestures and little twitches. He’s endearingly funny as well, partly because of the script and partly because of that familiarity. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – especially when the person you’re imitating is your director.
Essentially a romance, with lots of easy-on-the-eye soft focus photography – particularly when Stewart is on the screen – it does give us an antidote, if only to prevent us constantly seeing the 30s through rose tinted specs. It’s a sub-plot, confined to New York, featuring Bobby’s older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster with a nasty habit of burying anybody who upsets him under gallons of concrete and who also is the original owner of the nightclub. Compared to the rest of the film, it’s functional rather than engaging and Ben isn’t much more than a caricature gangster, so it’s no stretch for Stoll. Nonetheless, it makes a neat counterpoint.
It isn’t just Eisenberg who feels familiar in the film. That gangster sub-plot, for instance, harks back to Broadway Danny Rose, the unrequited love to Hannah And Her Sisters and Vronny’s age gap relationship to Manhattan. And, of course, there’s Allen’s on-going love affair with New York itself. It’s almost like watching a potted Woody Allen retrospective. But none of that stops Café Society from being immensely enjoyable. It’s hard, if not impossible, to resist its many charms.
Café Society is released in cinemas on Friday, 2nd September and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 1st September.