'Cafe Society': Cannes Review

Cafe Society Still - H 2016
Sabrina Lantos/Amazon Studios

Cafe Society Still - H 2016

Familiar but charming.

Woody Allen's new film, which opens the Cannes Film Festival, is a bittersweet 1930s-set romance starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.

Woody Allen’s first significantly Los Angeles-filmed feature since Annie Hall nearly 40 years ago is another bittersweet, lightly comic romance, this one set in the big studio heyday of the 1930s.

Wispy and familiar in its themes and humorous strokes, Cafe Society benefits from an exceptionally adept cast led by Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell, as well as from a luminous glow that emphasizes both the old Hollywood nostalgia and the story’s basis in dreams and artifice (it’s the director’s first feature shot digitally, by Vittorio Storaro, no less). After a six-picture run with Sony Classics, this time Allen has chosen to go with Amazon Studios for the film’s domestic release on July 29, which will test the new distributor’s ability to hit the auteur’s target theatrical audience prior to home viewing availability.

Layered with a rich soundtrack of romantic tunes from the period, this is a familiar tale of love yearned for, gained, lost and savored after the fact. In other words, it’s a format Allen has relied upon many times before, but even past the age of 80, the still-fertile writer-director, amazingly sticking to his one-film-per-year rhythm (not to mention his upcoming TV series, also with Amazon), has created a small fiction of amiable appeal and vibrancy which goes down as easily as a fizzy cocktail.

Brooklyn kid Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) shows up in mid-1930s Hollywood hoping to get a job with his powerhouse agent uncle Phil (Carell), who makes the newcomer wait a bit before giving him an entry-level position (“We don’t want to emphasize the nepotism,” Phil says in all seriousness). Phil, who bears more than a passing resemblance to legendary agent Charles Feldman (who was Allen’s first Hollywood agent and the producer of What’s New, Pussycat?), can’t utter a sentence without name-dropping and seems in all ways the master of his universe. But he does have an Achilles heel — he’s married, but is nuts about his assistant, the comely young Vonnie (Stewart).

Assigned by Phil to show his nephew around (basically showing him a lot of stars’ homes), Vonnie initially cools Bobby’s amorous enthusiasm by claiming she has a boyfriend, but Allen adroitly pulls the long-reliable levers of classic farce to create complications among the three and build pressure in all of them: Phil keeps vacillating between his wife and Vonnie, Vonnie can’t make up her mind either and Bobby eventually decides he wants to move back to New York (the strongest anti-Hollywood sentiment Allen can manage now is having Bobby say, “It’s really a kind of boring, nasty, dog-eat-dog industry”).

All the same, there’s nothing caustic in Allen’s approach here; as usual, his characters are all wrapped up in their own neuroses, momentary desires and indecision, and they love to verbalize it all. Despite his delirious feelings about Vonnie, Bobby is also hard and hasty to a significant degree, more than is usual for Allen’s partly self-based protagonists, so when circumstances dictate, he has no trouble pulling up stakes and returning to New York to work for his big-shot gangster older brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who puts him in charge of a high-end nightclub (hence the film’s title).

The long final act, nearly 45 minutes, leapfrogs considerably in time and relies significantly on narration that sounds like it’s spoken by Allen himself, despite a stilted quality that gives it the feel of something being read cold from a piece of paper. Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott (the latter could pass as the late Buddy Hackett’s brother) are comic highlights as the complaining parents of very different sons; that Bobby could marry and have a baby with a shiksa (Blake Lively) is one thing, but it drives them to existential angst that another is a king of the underworld.

Despite the shadow of innumerable bittersweet romances, including Allen’s own, that hangs over the trajectory of this love story, Cafe Society nonetheless generates a genuine, if mild, poignancy at the end for what the central characters have and what they don’t. There’s an entirely visible formula at work here, but Allen still knows how to milk it to reasonable effect.

Eisenberg has no trouble supplying the requisite neurotic quotient as the nominal Allen stand-in, but Stewart is good enough to almost make you wish for another version of The Great Gatsby just so she could play Daisy, and Carell layers his initially stock Hollywood big shot in unexpected ways that pay off rewardingly.

Many of the posh Hollywood scenes are wittily costumed by the resourceful Suzy Benzinger to have all the men suited in shades of tan and brown, and she has a field day with the glamorous women’s outfits throughout. Santo Loquasto’s production design takes you back to the town’s high-glamour days, while the cinematography — Storaro’s first work in the U.S. and on a mainstream feature in more than a decade — bathes everything in the exquisite artificiality of amber light.

Production: Gravier Productions, Perdido Productions
Cast: Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott
-screenwriter: Woody Allen
Producers: Lettie Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Edward Walson
Executive producers: Ron Chez, Adam B. Stern
Director of photography: Vittorio Storaro
Production designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Suzy Benzinger
Editor: Alisa Lepselter
Casting: Patricia Kerrigan DiCerto, Juliet Taylor

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes