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Cafe Society
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Midnight In Manhattan"
4 stars

Having been writing and directing an average of a film a year for nearly a half-century, Woody Allen has reached a point in his career where his more recent efforts tend to fall into one of two categories. There are the films where it is clear that he had an interesting and compelling idea that truly sparked his creative juices in some way and led to both critical and commercial success—in the last decade or so, this group would include the likes of “Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine” (though I must admit to finding the last one somewhat overrated). Then there are the films that seem to have been compiled out of various ideas that he dealt with more successfully in other films and put before the cameras simply as a way of continuing his long-standing work cycle. This is not to say that these films do not have any merit to them—I have enjoyed such admittedly minor efforts as “Whatever Works,” “To Rome with Love” and “Irrational Man” to some degree—but if these films, not to mention such decidedly lesser entries as “Scoop,” “Cassandra’s Dream” and “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” were to suddenly be completely stricken from his filmography, few people would overly mourn the loss. His latest effort, the wistful period romantic comedy-drama “Cafe Society,” is a work that falls into the latter camp. It has its charms and contains a few nice performances but the whole thing has a whiff of the familiar to it that cannot be overlooked—even when it does work, those with a working knowledge of his oeuvre are likely to find themselves comparing it to the similar material covered in earlier films and find it somewhat wanting by comparison.

Set in the 1930s, the film opens at a Hollywood mansion where powerful talent agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell)—the guy who has the entire film industry on speed-dial (or the closest thing to it back then)—is holding court until he is interrupted by a phone call from his sister (Jeannie Berlin) back east in the Bronx. It seems that her son, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), is not especially enchanted by the business opportunities that are open to him out there—either working in the small shop run by his parents or following in the footsteps of his amiable criminal brother Ben (Corey Stoll) and dying in far more colorful ways—and has chosen to head out to California to seek his fame and fortune. Wanting to get off the phone more than anything else, Phil agrees to help but when Bobby arrives, Phil gives him the brush-off for a few weeks. When he finally gets around to seeing his nephew, he offers Bobby a low-level job as a glorified gofer and asks one of his assistants to show him the ropes and the sights. This is Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and while Bobby may more or less fall in love with her at first sight for the obvious reasons, he becomes even more besotted by the fact that she has somehow managed to remain removed and unaffected by all the glitz, glamour and phony bonhomie that she is surrounded by on a daily basis. In turn, she obviously likes Bobby a lot as well but, as she lets him know early on, there is a man in her life—he is married, of course, but it is only a matter of time before he finally leaves his wife for her.

What Bobby does not know, but which we quickly learn (as if we haven’t guessed it already), is that his competition for Vonnie’s heart is none other than his uncle. As fate would have it, however, Phil decides that he cannot possibly leave his wife and breaks up with Vonnie, a move that leaves her heartbroken and Bobby in the perfect position to help pick up the pieces. Over the next few weeks, their love grows and Bobby asks her to get married and go back to New York with him. What sounds like a perfect Hollywood ending soon crumbles when Phil finally does leave his wife only to find that Vonnie is about to go off with his nephew. Forced to choose between the two, Vonnie unexpectedly opts for the security provided by Phil and Bobby heads back east in despair. There, he joins Ben in opening a nightclub that soon becomes one of the Big Apple’s hottest spots and makes him the connection between the top names in film, theater and crime that come to visit every night. He even meet and marries the glamorous Veronica (Blake Lively) and, despite some looming trouble involving Ben and his tendency to bury anyone who crosses him in concrete, he seems to have everything that he wanted out of life—wealth, status and a beautiful wife and family. Well, everything but Vonnie, that is, and then one day she and Phil, who have gotten married in the interim, turn up at the club while they are in town for a few days on business. Bobby tries to play it cool at first—especially he realizes that Vonnie has become the kind of gossipy industry wife that she used to make fun of—but even though both have changed since they last saw each other, there is still an attraction between them that neither can completely deny.

As those who have followed Allen’s filmography over the years, there is not much to “Cafe Society” that is especially new or groundbreaking, with the possible exception of a presentation of Hollywood culture that is a little more forgiving than one might expect from the man who so thoroughly skewered the West Coast mentality in “Annie Hall.” Instead, Allen gives viewers a few variations on some standard themes that he has explored more fully in the past through a narrative structure that is a lot looser than is the norm for him and the results are somewhat uneven. There are some scenes that feels a bit rushed (mostly in the later scenes set in New York) and others that go on for so long with so little payoff that you wonder why Allen (who once scrapped and reshot an entire film because it didn’t seem right to him) bothered to leave them in—there is a scene involving a new-to-California Bobby’s tortured negotiations with a new-to-the-business hooker (Anna Camp) that may be the most cringe-worthy moment in the Allen oeuvre since that bit with Judy Davis, Bebe Neuwirth and a banana in “Celebrity.” The stuff involving Ben’s criminal activities—especially in regards to his dealings with an obnoxious neighbor of his sister—feels like material recycled from “Bullets Over Broadway” that was awkwardly inserted into the script without any real purpose or payoff. (With a couple of minor adjustments, his entire character could be removed completely from the narrative without anyone noticing.)

On the other hand, there is plenty of stuff here that does work. I enjoyed the fantasyland version of behind-the-scenes Hollywood that Allen presents here via smart one-liners (“I’ve never mixed champagne with bagels and lox”) and the gorgeous golden-hued cinematography from the legendary Vittorio Storaro. The relationship that develops between Bobby and Vonnie is kind of sweet and touching, if inevitably doomed, and Allen find just the right wistful touch to handle it. Likewise, when the complications involving Phil eventually surface, there are moments of humor, to be sure, but mixed with a surprisingly human element that prevents it from spinning off into pure farce. There may not be any big standout comedic set pieces that people will be quoting for years here (though there is a joke about the sexual predilections of Errol Flynn that may raise a few eyebrows) but a lot of the dialogue has a sparkle to it that has been missing from his last few features, which have been a bit on the sour side, and it also serves as another one of Allen’s loving tributes to the glories of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

More so than usual, “Cafe Society” is an Allen film that ultimately gets a lot of juice from the strength of its performances. This is the third time that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have appeared together as an onscreen couple (following the delightful “Adventureland” and the anything-but-delightful “American Ultra”) and they continue to display an off-kilter chemistry that is undeniably fun to watch. After years of being mocked for her lobotomized performances in the “Twilight” movies (though to be fair, you might come across like a zombie if you had to say some of those lines) , Stewart has rebounded in the last couple of years with strong turns in films as varied as “Camp X-Ray,” “Still Alice” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” and continues her winning streak here by bringing a character that could have easily become just a cliche into a thrillingly human form. In what might have once been considered the “Woody Allen role,” Eisenberg is quite funny as well and lately manages to avoid the trap that so many others have fallen into over the years by offering an actual performance instead of just an Allen impersonation. Stepping at the last minute into a role that was originally filled by Bruce Willis until he was fired after a few days of shooting, Steve Carell gets his share of laughs as well but even though you are theoretically rooting for Vonnie and Bobby to get together early on, he makes it so you feel for him and his romantic predicament as well. In smaller roles, Blake Lively is very appealing as the woman Bobby marries—enough so that you wish that there was a little more time spent on her character—and there are also fun turns from Paul Schneider and Parker Posey as a pair of fellow New York transplants who befriend Bobby in California and later help put the nightclub on the map.

No one is going to mistake “Cafe Society” for a classic Woody Allen film or put it up on the same tier as “Stardust Memories,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Midnight in Paris” or any of the legitimate masterworks that he has come up with over the years. However, unless they are desperately attempting to impress Ronan Farrow, no sane observer could possibly rank it among such dregs as “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion” or “Anything Else” either. Instead, it is a perfectly serviceable film with some strong points and some rough spots that finds Allen tossing off an elaborately staged period comedy with the kind of effortless grace that one rarely experiences on the big screen these days. Will it be one of his unexpected commercial breakthroughs like “Midnight in Paris” or “Blue Jasmine”? Probably not. Will it satisfy anyone looking for some light entertainment that is not determined to blow you out of your seat with an orgy of special effects every few minutes? I think so.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=30495&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/22/16 00:13:02
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User Comments

8/26/16 mr.mike Moves nicely the first hour then grinds to a halt. 3 stars
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  15-Jul-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-Oct-2016


  DVD: 18-Oct-2016

Directed by
  Woody Allen

Written by
  Woody Allen

  Jesse Eisenberg
  Kristen Stewart
  Blake Lively
  Steve Carell
  Corey Stoll
  Parker Posey

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