REVIEW: ‘Café Society’ stiff, but appealingly sentimental

Café Society, the latest from writer/director Woody Allen, works hard to emulate for the viewer the feeling of reading a novel. It also works hard at ‘c’est la vie’ sentimentality, a sweet, stinging sorrow about love unrequited and dreams unfulfilled.

Some of it works due to the winsome cast and Allen’s trademark wit. But some of Allen’s other stylistic choices for the film feel labored, and at times the film seems to lose narrative focus.

Woody Allen film lovers will no doubt be more forgiving of Café Society‘s faults. But for others, those faults are sure to drag down what could have been a more poignant and entertaining film.

What’s it about?

In Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) plays Bobby Dorfman, a sweet Jewish kid from the Bronx with dreams of making a life for himself in 1930’s Los Angeles. His mom, Rose (Jeannie Berlin), puts in a word for him with her brother, powerful Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell), hoping Phil can help Bobby find a job.

Phil eventually proves to be Bobby’s introduction to the area’s movers and shakers, providing a glimpse of what most consider “the glamorous life.” But more importantly, Phil introduces Bobby to his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and the two become fast friends.

In spending time with Vonnie, Bobby finds himself smitten by her unpretentious charm and strong sense of self. She wants to make it in Hollywood, like so many other gals from the Midwest who move to L.A. do. But she sees the superficiality and emptiness of the glamorous life plain as day, and Bobby comes to love her for that insight.

Their romance is not without complications, however. Soon, with his hopes dashed and his heart broken, Bobby returns to New York and goes to work running a night club with his gangster older brother, Ben (Corey Stoll, Ant-Man).

In time, Bobby seems to find his place in the world. He also finds love again in the form of socialite Veronica (Blake Lively, The Shallows), and the two marry after a swift but sincere courtship.

All seems well; that is, until Bobby’s past life in L.A. finds its way to New York, and reminders of days gone by prove impossible to leave behind.

Café Society one-sheet

Vintage Woody Allen

Allen himself provides voice over narration in Café Society. Thus, he guides the narrative of the film, both literally and figuratively, and his signature tone, wit, and comic timing are everywhere.

Also here are his lifelong preoccupations with Jewish family life and familial ties, gangsters, self-absorbed celebrities, and love, bittersweet love. What would a Woody Allen film be without such themes?

However, in crafting Café Society in the way he might craft a Jazz Age novel, Allen overreaches. The long-winded, prose-style narration feels stuffy and archaic, rather than timely and nostalgic, as it was no doubt meant to.

Strong cast, beautiful costume design

What does benefit Café Society is strong casting, starting with Jesse Eisenberg. It’s not often anymore that Eisenberg opts to play naive and kind-hearted, so its a treat to see it here. Carell is also fun to watch here as non-stop wheeler-and-dealer Phil, who claims to know everyone who’s everyone but didn’t know his own nephew until Bobby showed up in his office.

The film’s female leads deliver strong performances, as well. Both Stewart and Lively are called upon to project a classic American charm characterized by perceptiveness and purity of spirit. The intent clearly was for them both to be sympathetic characters audiences could root for, and their efforts pay off.

Of course, the characters meant to serve as caricature in Café Society earn the biggest chuckles here. Jeannie Berlin’s Rose is the archetypal Jewish mom so often found in Allen productions, while Corey Stoll gives an understated performance as the loving son and brother who happens to whack people for a living. There’s one in every family, right?

Costume and production design also stand out in Café Society. The suits, the evening gowns, and settings here bring to life an immersive, gloriously nostalgic vision of old time glamour. Don’t be surprised if this film comes up in conversations for Best Costumes and Production Design, even with awards season months away.

Worth seeing?

For devotees of Woody Allen’s long filmography and favorite themes, Café Society is simply a must. It’s not his best in recent years — that distinction still belongs to Midnight in Paris. It’s not even his funniest, or his most sentimental.

But it is a charming and engrossing film thanks to its cast and unmistakable Woody Allen touch. It’s a wistful flight into the land of dreams come and gone, a place we all get to know sometime in our adult lives.

It’s about the sad sweetness of “what might have been.” Spending time with the feelings those words evoke isn’t too bad, every now and again.

Café Society

Starring Jeannie Berlin, Steve Carell, Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Parker Posey, Kristen Stewart, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott. Directed by Woody Allen.
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.