As with many of the films in Woody Allen’s recent portfolio, “Café Society” is simply another predictable and forgettable notch on the director’s belt. The prolific filmmaker is still writing, directing and creating at 80 years old, but most of his work of late just isn’t original, fresh, nor strong enough to stand alone — it all tends to run together in a big jumble of monotony.
This sweet little romance story is set in Hollywood in the 1930s, where we meet the big time, name dropping studio honcho Phil Stern (Steve Carell) and his New York nephew, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg). Bobby has decided to flee the Bronx for la la land to get a job in the industry. He is suddenly smitten by his uncle’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and a love affair blossoms against the backdrop of braggy well-heeled socialites, alluring movie stars, and charismatic yet unscrupulous gangsters.
A good portion of the movie is dully spent placing the audience as observers at fancy-schmancy Hollywood parties where we are forced to listen to vapid conversations from the wealthy elite (thankfully Parker Posey enjoyably chews the scenery as one of them). I’m not sure if we are supposed to like these people but I sure didn’t. I found not one character to be sympathetic, but maybe that’s the point. The film’s big surprise twist will also quickly be obvious to most viewers.
Allen has a true gift for eliciting understated yet satisfying performances from his talented actors and he keeps up his winning streak here. Stewart is the standout of course (although Blake Lively is radiant as Bobby’s wife), but I was very much surprised at how exceptional Corey Stoll is as Ben, Bobby’s gangster brother.
Anyone who is familiar with Allen’s filmography knows it goes without saying that the movie’s music is on point, the period costumes are lovely, and the production design is gorgeously (and I mean gorgeously) detailed. The film is well made yet it’s still mediocre.
Allen is mellowing out in his old age and is becoming more and more rambling and repetitive, and it’s reflected in his work. His originality wanes in this film. During the screening I kept having Woody déjà vu, internally asking myself ‘haven’t I seen this many, many times before?’ The answer is ‘yes,’ meaning that you could skip this film and not ever once fear that you’ve missed anything that’s truly worth watching.
Director Woody Allen’s latest movie is a semi love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when agents were power brokers, the acting talent little more than set dressing, and studio chiefs like Louis B. Mayer ruled the roost. In this world, the Stern-Dorfman family is ruled by mega-agent and Phil Stern (Steve Carrell, in another strong effort that will be forgotten come awards season) and gangster Ben Dorfman (Corey Stoll). Bobby is the youngest of the lot and makes his way west from Brooklyn with dreams of landing a big, important job in Los Angeles. When he goes to work with his Uncle Phil, he meets Vonnie and the two hit it off. But will their newfound friendship and budding romance last?
Eisenberg is solid as Bobby, but other than Carrell, it is Stewart and Stoll that really shine. Listen to me, people: if you still think of Kristen Stewart as the mopey, one-note teen from the “Twilight” movies, then you’re missing out. She has done some fantastic work in recent years and, while “Café Society” may not be her best turn of those films, her performance is reliably good, as I’ve come to expect.
Over the past decade and a half, Woody Allen has been a bit hit-and-miss as a director, but lately he’s been doing a little bit better. The amazing “Blue Jasmine” and the very good “Irrational Man” have been tempered with disappointing efforts “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome with Love.” “Café Society” is somewhere between the two: it’s better than the latter two but not as good as the former. It’s enjoyable enough, however, and at a characteristically short running time, it leaves you wanting for more. The story moves at the right pace, the dialogue is realistic, and the characters memorable.
Woody Allen fans will be pleased, as will anyone else seeking a respite from the mostly dull slate of current cinematic offerings.