Monday 2 December 2019

Movie Review: Café Society (2016)

A romance with mild humour, Café Society finds writer and director Woody Allen exploring familiar love entanglement themes with a light touch.

It's the 1930s, and Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a slick and successful Hollywood talent agent. His awkward nephew Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives from New York City seeking adventure and a potential career. Phil eventually gives Bobby a job and introduces him to his assistant Veronica (Kristen Stewart). Bobby is immediately smitten, although Veronica discloses she already has a boyfriend she calls Doug.

Back in New York City, Bobby's brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is rising up the ranks of mobsterism and buys into a swish nightclub, while sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) is married to the intellectual Leonard (Stephen Kunken) and dealing with a boorish neighbour. In Hollywood Bobby befriends married couple Rad and Steve (Parker Posey and Paul Schneider) and continues his pursuit of Veronica, unaware that "Doug" is really Uncle Phil, who keeps on promising Veronica he will leave his wife.

Romance between an older married man and the younger woman, a years-long mutual infatuation that must remain out of reach, and emotionally insecure and hopelessly in love men making and breaking commitments. Woody Allen's favourite themes all make an appearance in Café Society, a film as much about mood and place as it is about plot.

With loving care Allen recreates the sparkly upper echelons of 1930s Hollywood as a swirl around powerful agent Phil Stern, a man on a first name basis with anyone who matters, with a deal in the making and snippets of conversation ready for every person in the room. For both contrast and comparison, back in New York Allen tracks the rise of Ben Dorfman along the mob's career ladder, with short and sharp acts of violence (played for laughs) clearing his path towards managing a glitzy nightclub. From their kitchen parents Rose and Marty Dorfman (Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott) worry and bicker about the progress of both their sons.

While the material is warmly recognizable as Allen operating well within his comfort zone, it is all too safe. Precious little about Café Society is fresh or demanding, as the film meanders its way towards indecisive lovers settling for selfish choices that best fit both Hollywood's dream factory and New York's grittier scene. The writing is sometimes clever but also often too eager to over-reach for the profound zinger. Allen's directing is confidently laidback, allowing the actors' motions to occupy the patient cameras. His uncredited narration is quite unnecessary.

At 33 years old Jesse Eisenberg can still just about pull off his young-man-opening-his-eyes-to-the-world schtick, but at least here he gets to grow with the role as Bobby evolves into a self-assured family and business man. Carell has a lesser arc as Phil Stern, a man confident about everything except the value of his long-lasting marriage. Kristen Stewart is fine as the naturally seductive muse to both Eisenberg as protégé and Carell as mentor, and she emerges as the convincing focal point for both men. Blake Lively appears relatively late as another Veronica in Bobby's life.

Resisting the urge to tackle any new and thorny challenges, Café Society settles for easy on the eyes and intellectually cozy.

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