The name of Woody Allen has become pretty divisive in recent years, which is a real shame. A film history nut from way back, Allen has long been one of my favorite film-makers, and all things considered, he has been on a relative hot streak as of yet. With his latest release, Cafe Society, Allen keeps the streak alive in a period picture ripe with the classic Allen writing, strong performances (mostly) and cinematography that’s dripping with nostalgia in the best way possible.
The narrative follows young Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) as he moves from the Bronx to Hollywood in the 1930s to escape the doldrums of his family’s jewelry making business. Thanks to his uncle, super agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), Bobby is gradually able to make his way in the challenging town, and is introduced to Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) a down-to-earth wanna-be actress turned secretary, who Dorfman is immediately smitten with. The budding relationship is complicated by the presence of Vonnie’s unseen boyfriend. To give much more here would border on spoilers…
Lately, Woody Allen has been on a huge nostalgia kick with films like Midnight in Paris, Magic in the Moonlight, and now Cafe Society. Allen’s vision 1930s Hollywood, and later Manhattan during the same period is completely glossy, glitzy and idealistic and I love it. As a filmmaker, Allen manages to catch the best sunlight possible. The movie practically glows with its idealistic take on the past. Visually, it lends itself to some truly stunning visuals as we follow our characters through these iconic settings (which are surprisingly Depression free, considering the time period).
Allen puts together a wide-ranging and talented cast, as per usual in his films. Steve Carell reaches another level with the character of Phil Stern, and absolutely dominates frame whenever he is on camera. Eisenberg gives a dynamic performance as well, giving what appears to be an almost spot on take on Woody Allen himself. One of my personal favorites, Corey Stoll gives a dynamic (though brief) performance as Dorfman’s gangster brother Ben.
The only real weakness seems to be the two female leads. Kristen Stewart appears to only have one speed in this role… pensive. She looks absolutely stunning on-screen, but the best descriptor I can think of is that Vonnie is Bella Swan in 1930’s Hollywood. Perhaps the character hasn’t been fully realized on the page and she was working with what she was given, but there seems to be something missing with the character. (I may be an Emma Stone fangirl, but I would have loved to have seen her in that role). The second is Bobby’s second wife, Veronica (Blake Lively) who is beautiful, likeable, and the perfect wife for any man in the 1930s. There just isn’t enough of her to really make a decision one way or another on the character. It leaves you feeling really “meh” about both of them. Bobby seems to have more interesting chemistry with the delightful Rad Taylor (Parker Posey) than either of the main female leads.
The script (once again, as per Allen’s usual) is incredibly strong. The film drips with his usual wit, delivered especially well by Eisenberg, who as I wrote, functions in the movie as a lens for Allen. There were a number of chuckle worthy moments in the film, which even had this screening audience laughing. This can be a challenge with a filmmaker who has a tendency to be subtle and a bit niche anymore.
As a fan of Woody Allen’s work, Cafe Society is a strong entry into the directors lengthy cannon of work. He continues on the strong streak he has been on lately, presenting a glitzy and glamorous period film that is not only well-written, but is beautifully shot.
My verdict: 🌟🌟🌟🌟