Woody Allen has a distinct knack for storytelling. "Cafe Society" showcases the grandeur of 1930's Hollywood while depicting the evolution of Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) from a naive, shy boy born in the Bronx to an impresario of the nightclub world of New York City.
Bobby loathes working at his father Marty's (Ken Stott) jewelry store in the Bronx. His mother Rose (Jeannie Berlin),has a brother, Phil Stern (Steve Carell) who's a big shot agent in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, so Bobby takes off for California hoping to rejuvenate his life. At Phil's office, he meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil's lovely and playful secretary, who takes Bobby under her wing.
As you might expect, Bobby falls hard and fast for Vonnie, but she already has a boyfriend. When she gets dumped, Vonnie turns to Bobby for consolation, which inevitably turns to romance. But, alas, the boyfriend comes back into the picture and poor Vonnie is forced to choose --- and she doesn't pick Bobby.
Brokenhearted, Bobby returns to his family in New York, where he begins working for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) at his newly-acquired nightclub. Bobby, it turns out, has the gifts of charm and glad-handing, and soon "Club Hangover", renamed "Les Tropiques", is the hottest club in town. His very wealthy friends, Rad (Parker Posey) and her husband, Steve (Paul Schneider), introduce Bobby to Veronica (Blake Lively), a newly-divorced socialite --- and the rest is, shall we say, history.
"Cafe Society" has a marvelous look and feel. It is rife with sumptuous jewels, costumes, settings and exquisite cinematography. The term Cafe Society was coined to describe the celebrities, artists, aristocrats, etc, who would hold court in the most fashionable venues in New York and other major cities of the world. Allen, a true devotee of New York City and its past, has always been fascinated with this particular era. And, as usual, Allen's attention to detail is masterfully on display.
For the first time, Allen chose to work with three-time Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro as his cinematographer. And, another first for both --- they shot the movie digitally. It's a stunning film to experience, with Storaro's usage of colors and lighting making a huge impact. In one scene near the end of the movie --- it's New Year's Eve --- Veronica is getting dressed at home, and she appears in a gorgeous deep red gown that stands out perfectly against the muted colors of her and Bobby's bedroom --- genius Allen.
Admittedly, as much as I appreciate Eisenberg's acting prowess, I was shocked when I read that he would be playing the leading man role opposite both Stewart and Lively. But my fears were soon allayed as he is terrifically exceptional in his transformation from a kind of a nerd to a suave nightclub manager. Again, Allen knows his business, and always seems to select just the right cast.
Stewart is exceedingly lovely --- she's come a long way, too, though she did a great job in last year's "Clouds of Sils Maria". David loves her, I do not, but I am beginning to appreciate her more. Lively's role is much smaller than anticipated, but she suits Veronica beautifully. It's a rather nice opportunity for her.
My biggest complaint regarding "Cafe Society" lies in Stoll's tough-guy character. Ben is a thug who comes straight out of any other gangster movie --- very one-dimensional. This is highly disappointing because I think Stoll is a much better actor than the material he is given here. Carell, too, is a bit of a Hollywood wheeler-dealer cliche --- but with a much softer side.
Allen, who writes, directs AND narrates, doesn't appear to be slowing down. "Cafe Society" may not be his best, but it is, at times, hilarious, and as always with Allen's films --- vastly entertaining.
Opinion: See It Now!
Like fine wine or aged cheese, 80-year-old filmmaker Woody Allen keeps getting better. His most recent efforts --- "Midnight in Paris", "Blue Jasmine" and "Magic in the Moonlight" all share a common thread --- Woody wasn't in the cast. His early movies certainly thrived with a younger Allen playing the usual goofball, but his latest productions are better when he only writes and directs --- though he does narrate here.
"Cafe Society" joins the ranks of those films mentioned above with a tightly written script that showcases the talents of good actors. Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are pitch perfect in this 1930's era tale of a passionate love triangle.
Carell plays super agent Phil Stern, arrogantly pursuing the biggest names in Hollywood, grudgingly providing a menial job to his nephew, Bobby (Eisenberg). Stern's assistant Vonnie (Stewart) --- short for Veronica --- is smart and sexy, and when Bobby is immediately smitten, the film moves into high gear.
Carell again proves his dramatic mettle after superior performances in "Foxcatcher" and "The Big Short". Eisenberg solidifies his status as an A-list actor. His portrayal of Bobby's transition from the wet-behind-the-ears nebbish to bon vivant is amazing. Stewart proves that her turns in "Clouds of Sils Maria" and "Still Alice" were no flukes. As the trio's secrets are revealed, these three stars are mesmerizing while interpreting Allen's script about love, life and death.
"Cafe Society" is filled with a stellar supporting cast. Corey Stoll is Bobby's older brother Ben, a thug who aims for legitimacy by buying a night club. Bobby's parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin --- older moviegoers will remember her standout performance in the original "The Heartbreak Kid", 1972) and Marty (Ken Stott --- who, even without the makeup, looks like the Hobbit he has played) are a riot.
But the two cast members who almost steal the show are Stephen Kunkel as Bobby's brother-in-law Leonard, and Parker Posey as wealthy New York socialite Rad Taylor. Posey, reuniting with Allen ("Irrational Man"), befriends Bobby when he most needs support. She is delightful and almost unrecognizable in her blond wig.
Leonard, meanwhile, is married to Bobby's sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick), and when their obnoxious neighbor plays his radio too loudly --- Evelyn has a migraine --- the mild-mannered but frenetic Leonard unsuccessfully tries to calm the situation. So Evelyn enlists brother Ben's help with disastrous, but ultimately funny, results. It's a typical Woody Allen sidebar to briefly distract us from the main event. And the fashions by Suzy Benzinger ("Blue Jasmine") are a character all their own, as we are transported back to a time of lavish night life juxtaposed with audacious murders in broad daylight.
"Cafe Society" is a mature look at the complexities of human interaction. The ending may not satisfy everyone, but its message is clear. To borrow from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young --- "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with".
Opinion: See It Now!