CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.
Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood. His mother Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent. Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.
It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend. As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too. Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.
CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.
I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015). On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016). He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting. Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else. He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.
Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor. Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.
She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home. And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.
And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision. She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.
Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.
Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015). But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person. Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.
Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx. His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?” She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife. She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian. I don’t know which is worse!”
Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments. Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.
The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult. As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.
Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.
CAFE SOCIETY looks great. As a period piece, the film is perfect. Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.
As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy. There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama. The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.
I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies. That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.