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Café Society – Review


Release Date: 2 September 2016
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg – Kristen Stewart – Blake Lively – Steve Carell – Ken Stott



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Posted June 25, 2016 by

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Cafe Society Review:

I remember when Woody Allen parodied great literature; now he produces pale imitations of it. Café Society’ is his version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, but it’s so-so. His hero, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg in a haircut that is great for introductions to a mother) is a young man who goes to Hollywood with no idea what he wants to be and hopes that his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), an agent in Hollywood, will find him some work. After an awkward encounter with a prostitute which is played indifferently for laughs, Bobby gets his appointment and meets and falls for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, Eisenberg’s co-star from ‘Adventureland’ and ‘American Ultra’). Only Vonnie has a boyfriend. When Bobby finds out who it is, he returns to New York, has some success running a club, only his brother Ben (Corey Stoll) runs into a little trouble. There is a noisy neighbour to be taken care of, but things get out of hand.

Allen fills the screen with characters who don’t come to life, except for Phil who is animated by Carell’s lively delivery and Bobby’s parents, played by Ken Stott and Jeannie Berlin, the latter having the film’s only good line: ‘our religion should have an afterlife; it would get more customers’.

This is the first Woody Allen film to be a tale set in two cities, though the period setting limits a celebration of architecture. Allen is in love with old Hollywood – Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and William Powell – so he doesn’t do satire. His own chequered private life means he won’t do the Fatty Arbuckle story either.

Allen has described ‘Café Society’ as his most expensive movie to date (at $20 million). Here, he seems to have worried more about the budget, which features elegant costumes and party scenes, than the script. It is his first film shot on digital video and first collaboration with ‘Apocalypse Now’ cinematographer Vittorio Storaro who lights the film with more flair than it frankly deserves.

At heart, this is a family drama amongst the godless – the ‘godless-father’ if you will, with Bobby seeking to avoid his brother Ben’s criminal life. If you cannot rely on God or friends, the film says, you have to turn to your family. This feels like an interesting departure for Allen who tends to explore relationships between men and women and hasn’t looked at extended families since his 1986 film, ‘Hannah and her Sisters’, though Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine did stay with her sister (Sally Hawkins) in ‘Blue Jasmine’ (2013).

So where does F Scott Fitzgerald fit in? When he manages his club, Bobby is like a Gatsby figure, self-made, benefiting (though it is never mentioned) from his brother’s criminal activities. Allen is on voice over duties and at one point describes the various patrons. This might make you think of ‘Goodfellas’, but as he introduces them, the characters don’t come to life. They are a wardrobe list.

In ‘Blue Jasmine’, Blanchett transcended her part and brought her character’s neuroses to vivid life – the film had more than a whiff of Tennessee Williams. The lovers in ‘Café Society’ sparkle a little, but you can’t understand why Bobby would prefer Vonnie to his glamorous wife.

The most grating aspect of the film is that Bobby has no ambition or desire. He isn’t, as Andy Samberg might say, 4Real. You want him to acknowledge or confront his lack of ambition, but I’m not sure Allen is aware of this aspect of Bobby’s character – he is just a cipher.

Perhaps Allen was too preoccupied with his upcoming television series with Elaine May and Miley Cyrus to finish this film properly; the voiceover feels like stitching. ‘Café Society’ feels simultaneously over-stuffed and bland; a much longer film shoe-horned into 96 minutes.


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Larry Oliver
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