Review: Café Society: Woody Allen’s Welcome Return to Dreamland

Mark Reynolds

A sweet star-crossed romance binds Woody Allen’s seductive tale of shadowy glamour in 1930s Hollywood and New York.

Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell lead an all-star cast as Eisenberg’s Bobby Dorfman heads out from the Bronx to try his luck in Tinseltown, where uncle Phil Stern (Carell) is a live-wire agent to screen legends of the day.

After initially being given the runaround due to Phil’s breathless schedule of meetings and last-minute business trips, Bobby is taken under his uncle’s wing and challenged to work his way up from the lowly role of errand boy. Phil gets his sharp young secretary Vonnie (Stewart) to show Bobby around town, and the pair hit it off as they cruise by the showy mansions of Beverly Hills and hang out in ornate cinemas, unpretentious eateries and on the pristine beaches of nearby Malibu. When Vonnie’s married boyfriend backs down from his promise to leave his wife, it frees her to explore a new romance with Bobby, but their glimpse of a happy life together falls apart when other complications blow in.

 

Stewart is the stand-out performer, in a captivating
study of hesitation, compromise, hope and regret.

 

Bobby returns to New York alone, and slips easily into the role of manager and host of his brother Ben (Corey Stoll)’s dubiously acquired nightclub, which he transforms with a chic makeover that attracts the city’s free-spending celebrities, socialites, playboys and politicians. But there are lowlifes among the high life – not least Ben, who we see picking off any enemies or chancers who threaten his growing status as mobster-in-chief.

As Ben’s evil actions come home to roost, Bobby’s past also catches up with him when the now married Vonnie floats into town and into his very club. Will she and Bobby reconnect, or are their bygone desires now only the stuff of dreams?

Eisenberg begins by adopting Allen’s trademark stuttering bemusement and grouchy anxiety and does a fine job as the latest stand-in for the director’s younger self, then broadens out as his character grows more worldly. But Stewart is the stand-out performer, in a captivating study of hesitation, compromise, hope and regret.

The New York sections are all about the duties, respect, affection, niggles and feisty togetherness of a close-knit family, offering appetising roles for the supporting cast. Stoll’s Ben is a cartoonish goon but believably hardened. Ken Stott as the boys’ father is crumpled, gruff and morally upstanding, even as he loafs about at home in a string vest, putting up with picky insults from his wife Rose (Jeannie Berlin) who believes – probably wrongly – that she married beneath her. Out in the suburbs, middle sister Evelyn (Sari Lennick) sparks an alarmingly murderous sub-plot when her meek and cerebral husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) tries to reason with an unruly neighbour. Parker Posey is arch as model agent Rad, whose principal role is to populate the club with beautiful people, and whisk in a new love interest for Bobby in the shape of Blake Liveley’s lithe and lovely Veronica.

 

The jazz soundtrack is Allen’s usual
impeccable mix of freshly minted standards

 

This is the first time Allen or cinematographer Vittorio Storaro have shot digitally, and they create a stunning palette of blazing hot Hollywood tones, and a desaturated, dilapidated and homely Bronx set in stark contrast to vividly opulent Manhattan. The jazz soundtrack is Allen’s usual impeccable mix of freshly minted standards (with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks playing live at the club) and classic recordings from Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Ben Selvin.

One misstep is a voiceover by Allen that is wry and snippy but occasionally ‘on the nose’, needlessly reporting on characters’ thoughts and feelings. Allen’s voice at 80 is scratchy and weary and sometimes takes the edge off the quips. But in a nice touch the narrated scenes are filmed by Steadicam, giving the impression of a disembodied observer floating among the characters.

Allen will forever be haunted by the staggering success of his 1970s and 1980s blockbusters like Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, but by any measure this is a solid and diverting piece of filmmaking that, by virtue of its leading lady, stands comparison to the director’s widely acclaimed late masterwork, 2013’s Blue Jasmine. That there were duff films in-between make it all the more remarkable that he still has magic in his locker.