D: Woody Allen / 96m
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Jeannie Berlin, Ken Stott, Corey Stoll, Sari Lennick, Stephen Kunken, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Anna Camp, Sheryl Lee
In the Thirties, naïve young Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) leaves the safety of his parents’ (Berlin, Stott) home in the Bronx to move to Hollywood and start a new life. Taken under the wing of his uncle, super-agent Phil Stern (Carell), Bobby is shown around town by Stern’s secretary, Vonnie (Stewart). He quickly falls in love with her, despite her having a boyfriend, and they spend a lot of time together. But when the man in Vonnie’s life reneges on a promise to leave his wife for her, she allows herself to be wooed by Bobby, and in time he asks her to marry him and go with him to New York (he’s bored by the shallowness of Hollywood and its denizens).
But Vonnie’s “boyfriend” finally leaves his wife and she chooses to marry him instead of Bobby. Heartbroken, and hardened by the experience, Bobby returns to New York where he goes to work with his older brother, Ben (Stoll), running a nightclub called Le Tropical. Ben has criminal ties, but keeps Bobby clear of any involvement. Eventually, Bobby meets and marries a recent divorceé, Veronica (Lively). They have a child, and the club becomes a focal point for the famous, the infamous, and everyone in between. Now settled firmly into the roles of husband, father and successful businessman, Bobby’s world is turned upside down when Vonnie pays a visit to Le Tropical with her husband, and it becomes clear that they still have feelings for each other.
Woody Allen’s latest, annual, offering is an outwardly frivolous affair that touches on many of the tropes that have kept his movie career going for nearly fifty years. There’s the relationship between an older man and a (much) younger woman; love denied; philosophical enquiries into the natures of life, love and art; class merits and social acceptance; ambition; and all wrapped up in a slightly more jaundiced approach than is usual. Beneath the glamour and the glitzy lifestyles on display in both Hollywood and New York, Allen makes it clear that happiness is much harder to find than it appears. It also appears to be much more of a commodity, as Bobby’s offer of a romantic life in New York is spurned for a superficial one in Hollywood.
Allen once again assembles a great cast with Eisenberg as yet another on-screen substitute for The Man Himself, and Stewart putting in her best performance in quite some time as the (not really) conflicted Vonnie. But it’s the supporting characters who steal the show, in particular Bobby’s aunt Evelyn (Lennick) and her pacifist husband, Leonard (Kunken). Their problem with an abusive neighbour provides a much needed break from the predictable nature of the central romance, while Stoll’s droll gangster is worthy of a movie of his own. It’s this imbalance that hurts the movie at times, as the romance between Vonnie and Bobby, though given due emphasis by Allen’s screenplay, isn’t as compelling as you’d expect. It’s the distractions from the main storyline that work better as a result, and while Allen peppers things with his trademark wit (“First a murderer, and now a Christian!”), it’s not enough to offset the familiarity of a romance seen too often before.
Rating: 7/10 – Vittorio Storaro’s gorgeous cinematography is Café Society‘s biggest draw, along with its cast, but this is ultimately a Woody Allen movie that sees him revisiting familiar ground to sporadically good effect; enjoyable enough then, but there’s a sense that Allen’s once-a-year workload is still providing similar returns with each new movie.