“First a murderer, then he becomes a Christian! What did I do to deserve this?”
Those who aren’t fans of late-period Woody Allen are unlikely to change their mind with Café Society, a stylish period piece set in Depression Era Hollywood. It lacks the bite of his best work; in fact, it shows him in a far more nostalgic state of mind than ever. As a summer release, though, Café Society is a competent, engaging comedy with a lot of charm.
Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a bright, affable, ambitious, and angsty young New Yorker. The problem is, he hasn’t got a plan—which is probably the source of his angst. With little more than good manners, a strong work ethic, and hope, he leaves Brooklyn for ostensibly greener pastures in Los Angeles, where his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) is a big time agent to the stars. Bobby tracks down his uncle, who dodges him for a week before hiring him as his personal assistant.
Uncle Phil shows Bobby the ropes around Hollywood, promoting him to different, better positions in a short time. They kind of bond. While this is going on, Bobby gets friendly with his uncle’s secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). They hang out. A lot. She has a beau, she tells Bobby, and they’re on the D.L. because he’s married. Bobby falls for her, anyway, but she keeps him at bay. Vonnie tells Bobby only that her beau works as a reporter, and is older than she is. She also mentions the gift she gives him for their first anniversary: a picture of Rudolph Valentino.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
L.A. is sunny, but not really Bobby’s thing. He longs for New York, and decides to go back. Meanwhile, we learn that Phil is having an affair—with Vonnie. Phil vascilates about leaving his wife, decides he can’t do it, and dumps Vonnie on their first anniversary. Vonnie quits her job and dates Bobby, seriously. They plan to move to Greenwich Village and get married. Phil changes his mind, and decides he can’t live without Vonnie. He wants her back. A turn of events reveals the triangle to Bobby, and the real story begins.
Café Society deals with fame, fortune, and fidelity. The plot is nicely layered: interesting but not overly complicated. It doesn’t even take long for the “Big Reveal.” Every character is likable but hardly innocent. The sets are gorgeous. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is crisp and glitzy—at times, the color palette and grade resemble Lawrence of Arabia. Odd, but cool.
The cast is excellent, which for a Woody Allen film is par for the course: Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Blake Lively, Paul Schneider, even Parker Posey. Eisenberg channels Allen really well—the way he speaks, his body language and hand gestures, even his facial ticks. A hilarious exchange between Bobby and a girl-for-hire named Candy (Anna Camp) who shows up late at his apartment is nothing short of genius. As good as Eisenberg is, though, Stewart is the star, and she steals every scene she’s in: she’s cool, mean, flip, vulnerable, and ultimately a sellout. She’s also beautiful. Berlin is another scene-stealer as Bobby’s Jewish mother, Rose.
Surprisingly, Steve Carell is the weak link. I don’t buy him as an agent, a ball-busting businessman, or even a Jew. Not for a second. He’s too soft. Harmless. Cuddly, even. He comes off as Michael Scott from The Office more than anything. I’ve liked him in every role I’ve seen him in, even The 40-Year-Old Virgin. This one, however, doesn’t work.
(AMC River East) B