Café Society

 

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Woody Allen is back on form with his 45th film as writer-director, a cross-cultural romantic comedy set in both Hollywood and New York in the 1930s.

 

Café Society
High society: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart   


Sometimes, to play to one’s strengths, a true artist is forced to experiment. Woody Allen has certainly strayed from his comfort zone in the latter half of his career, accumulating a series of stilted trifles with little comic resonance or insight, so-called comedies like Scoop, To Rome with Love, Magic in the Moonlight and, perhaps even worse, the London-set thriller Cassandra’s Dream. Here, in this poignant valentine to New York, Allen returns to all his first loves: the Big Apple, attractive and complex young women, jazz and Jewish angst.

 

Lending his own inimitable voice as the (uncredited) narrator, a more mature Allen is back doing what he does best, while never failing to amuse. From the safe distance of 2,790 miles, he sticks it to Hollywood with effortless glee, while name-checking everybody from Joel McCrea and Irene Dunne to Errol Flynn and Ginger Rogers.

 

The target of his derision is effusively essayed by Steve Carell (who replaced Bruce Willis after the latter was removed for his prima donna behaviour), as the talent agent Phil Stern, the uncle of Woody’s alter ego, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). Bobby, a nervous idealist from the Bronx, moves to Los Angeles in the 1930s in the hope that his uncle might find him work. What Bobby does find is love, in the form of Phil’s secretary Veronica – or Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) – a bright young thing who shows him around and treats him to the sights of Beverly Hills. She is already disillusioned by the vulgarity of the Hollywood dream and prefers her modest abode by the beach. And, unfortunately for Bobby, she has a boyfriend. But, this being Woody Allen, there are complications, intricacies that the writer-director spins with consummate comic effect.

 

The heart of the movies resides in the rapport between Eisenberg and Stewart (who were previously paired in Greg Mottola's winning Adventureland of 2009, as well as in American Ultra), and we root for them as if they were unshakeable childhood sweethearts. Steve Carell is also good value as the boastful, name-dropping agent, constantly complaining about the cost of long-distance calls, while Sari Lennick, Jeannie Berlin and Corey Stoll round out an excellent supporting cast. Blake Lively is particularly good as another love interest called Veronica and showers class wherever she glides. There are two seconds near the film’s conclusion that reveals the actress’s true intelligence – when she catches but disregards a lie – that recalls that unforgettable look Charlotte Rampling gives at the end of 45 Years. But it’s Woody we have to thank for the comic and romantic legerdemain, providing a funny and wistful glimpse at a bygone era when love survived beneath the seductive allure of old-fashioned glamour.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Anna Camp, Paul Schneider, Sheryl Lee, Tony Sirico, Stephen Kunken, Sari Lennick.

 

Dir Woody Allen, Pro Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum and Edward Walson, Screenplay Woody Allen, Ph Vittorio Storaro, Pro Des Santo Loquasto, Ed Alisa Lepselter, Costumes Suzy Benzinger.

 

Gravier Productions/Perdido Productions/FilmNation Entertainment-Warner Brothers.

96 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 2 September 2016. Cert. 12A.