Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Sheryl Lee | Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen is the kind of director that has cemented a style that is his very own. When the opening music begins to play and the letters appear on the screen you know that you’re about to watch a Woody Allen film. Café Society, Woody’s latest, begins in much the same way as his other cinematic offerings, and the familiar territory almost feels comforting.
Café Society has a cast of both Woody Allen alumni and first-timers, and it’s a good one. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart reconnect after appearing together in Adventureland and American Ultra. Steve Carell (The Office), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris) and Ken Stott (The Hobbit) among others grace the screen in a gathering of acting talent that really dive in head-first and do their director proud. It is a great assembly of performers and it’s hard to pick a stand-out, though I was quite shocked at Stewart, who has improved so much in the years since the Twilight films, and proves to be a very accomplished leading lady here. Eisenberg channels classic Woody Allen with his anxious and somewhat bumbling “Bobby”. It’s a character we’re familiar with but it is a tried and tested one and so doesn’t feel out-dated or phoned-in. Steve Carell is one of my personal favourite actors and so seeing him in this setting was great. His character follows films like Foxcatcher and The Way Way Back with Carell playing against type. I think it’s fair to say that Carell has removed any “type” from his casting now, showing himself to be an actor diverse of range and able to breathe life into characters both light and dark, arrogant and modest and kind and selfish. He is excellent here.
Café Society follows Bobby (Eisenberg), a young New Yorker who is moving to Los Angeles to attempt to start a new life. He seeks help with an uncle who he hardly knows but who works in the Hollywood movie industry, Uncle Phil (Carell). Phil gives Bobby a job as his assistant and so begins Bobby’s new life in California, schmoozing with the glamorous Hollywood bodies of the 1930’s. He is shown about town by his Uncles secretary, Vonnie (Stewart), and the two begin to find a kindred spiritual bond as they talk and drink and eat together. Vonnie, however, has a “boyfriend” and things go from one level of complicated to another as we progress. Meanwhile, back in New York City, we check in now and then on Bobby’s family, mainly his hoodlum-brother Ben (Stoll) who is involved in the not-so-clean underbelly of organised crime. In between all this, we hear the familiar tones of Woody himself as he narrates the goings-on. It’s a very appealing way of telling the tale.
There are things that feel a little too rinsed and repeated in here and there is perhaps too much predictability to be found in where the characters go. The film does look beautiful, with a shining gloss that makes the scenes, specifically the Hollywood ones, look dreamlike and just incredible. The visual style of this film really is exceptional. There are lots of things going on here. I found myself asking whether I was watching a film about love, both finding, losing and reclaiming it, or about the enchantment of distant cities and how the grass always seems greener until our feet are planted firmly on it. I think, at the end of the day, this is a film about Bobby, a character who represents Woody Allen and the many nervous leads he’s played in the past, and how the come-hither eyes of Los Angeles might hypnotise for a while but will never replace that true feeling of home in New York.
I enjoyed Café Society quite a bit. It didn’t top Midnight in Paris, which for me is the best of recent Woody Allen (and actually my overall favourite on a personal level), but it impressed much more than the likes of To Rome with Love and Magic in the Moonlight. It looks great and features some brilliant performances, and for that it should not fall under the radar, that would be a real shame.