CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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cafe society poster

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.

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Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

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.

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Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

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.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

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10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael