Editor’s Notes: Cafe Society is out on in its respective home video format October 18th.
How pleasant it is to encounter the wit and sophistication of a period romantic comedy during a season typically filled with superhero flicks, animated movies, and broad comedies. Cafe Society (Lionsgate) Woody Allen’s 46th picture, focuses on New Yorker Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who, bored with a dull job in the family business, heads to California to ask his uncle, powerful Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), for a job.
Phil gives Bobby some odd jobs at first and eventually promotes him to script reader. Because his schedule is hectic, Phil asks his secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town. Before long, Bobby is smitten with Vonnie. But, alas, Vonnie has a boyfriend.
This routine-sounding premise gets interesting twists and unforeseen developments as it follows Bobby back to New York to help his gangster brother run a fashionable nightclub.
Director Allen presents a vivid picture of Depression-era Hollywood as well as New York’s thriving nightclub scene. Complete with period costumes and vintage automobiles, much of the film looks glamorous, and the Great American Songbook soundtrack, with heavy emphasis on Rodgers and Hart, provides a lush, nostalgic accompaniment.
Cafe Society is Eisenberg’s best film since The Social Network. Rather than playing his typical nervous, snarky character, the actor etches an in-depth performance of a young man from a working-class family who takes an adventurous journey on two coasts. We can imagine a younger Woody Allen, who narrates, playing Eisenberg’s role if he had made the film 40 years ago. His on-screen narration — his voice shakier than we remember — elucidates the characters and punctuates and comments on the action.
Ms. Stewart is excellent as Vonnie, a girl torn between a year-long relationship and a new, easygoing and charming guy from New York. Screen chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is strong and we believe these two are made for each other. But, naturally, there are obstacles and things don’t always go as anticipated.
Though the movie is a mere 85 minutes, Allen introduces a host of colorful characters, mostly Bobby’s family members. His mother, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), is a long-suffering Jewish Mom who peppers her anguish with Yiddish and calls upon her successful brother to lend her son a helping hand. Corey Stoll plays Bobby’s brother Ben, a New York gangster who has a foolproof method of making problems vanish, and who later becomes proprietor of the Cafe Society nightclub.
Carell’s Phil Stern reminded me of Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold from the Entourage television series. Both men, though separated by over 75 years, thrive on making deals and living in Hollywood’s fast track. Carell plays the part straight, with none of the mugging he built a career on. The plot thickens when Phil drops the power- player attitude and confides in Bobby about a decision that is tormenting him.
Cafe Society is a tightly edited period tale with an almost fairy-tale feel. The opulent settings, in an era when movie stars and wannabe starlets mingled with corrupt politicians and gangsters, feels as real as the characters. The romantic story reflects a deft hand as it shows two average, simple young people falling under each other’s spell.
Allen is exceptional at pairing colorful settings with characters. He did it in Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love, and he continues his cinematic magic with this latest film. Occasional references to Fred Astaire, Irene Dunne, Joel McCrea Hedy Lamar and other 1930s movie stars are a nice touch.
Allen is known for keeping his films under 90 minutes, and that’s usually good for moving the plot along and packing in as many jokes as possible before running out of steam. Cafe Society isn’t a jokey type of picture. It’s much more character driven. There are funny moments, but they derive from the characters rather than punchlines. Allen gives us a slice of life but leaves his characters rather abruptly, with a bittersweet tone. I wanted to spend more time with them.
Rated PG-13, Cafe Society proves that Woody Allen still knows how to engage audiences. Performances are excellent, and the script — also by Allen — captures a bygone era in which glamor was sold to the public in films featuring photogenic stars. This is an old-fashioned romantic drama that juggles themes of fidelity and fame as it revisits Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include the featurette “On the Red Carpet” and a photo gallery. A digital HD copy is included.