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Café Society

Anyone who is anyone will be seen at Café Society.

Visiting a romanticized past has sometimes served Woody Allen well (The Purple Rose Of Cairo, Midnight In Paris), sometimes rather badly (the recent Magic In The Moonlight). But the glitter of the 1930s American beau monde rubs off handsomely in Café Society, a bittersweet comedy of manners that sees Allen pushing the envelope in terms of style and narrative ambition, even as he treads familiar ground. Sumptuous visual execution plus a top-rate ensemble cast should place this in the high altitudes of Allen’s recent commercial successes.

Poster for Woody Allen's romantic comedy Café SocietyEssentially a tale of individuals losing their illusions as they find their way to worldly success, Café Society opens at an L.A. poolside party at the house of powerful, name-dropping Hollywood agent Phil Stern (Steve Carell). Allen’s own voice-over narrates a constant zigzag between L.A. and New York, where we meet the Dorfmans, the working-class Jewish family of Phil’s sister Rose (Jeannie Berlin).

Rose’s son Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) soon arrives in L.A. looking for new avenues and, after a false start, is given a mailroom job by his uncle Phil, who also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). She’s a down-to-earth soul, unimpressed by Hollywood pretensions, and Bobby falls instantly for her. But fate stands in the way of their happiness, and Bobby flies back home. There he reinvents himself as the front-of-house charmer at the chic Manhattan nightclub run by his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), a gangster who’s built his empire on sudden death (‘If you ask nicely, people will listen,’ he says, dumping a business associate into a cement pit).

In recent years, Allen has often seemed stifled by the vignette-style concision of his anecdotes. Here he opts for a more expansive narrative scale, spinning his story out over a year and zig-zagging between different sets of characters and sub-plots that build up teasingly.

There is a certain amount of Allen-by-rote here, and flashes of familiar philosophical kvetching, graced with a drizzle of sharp one-liners. Acting-wise, this is one of Allen’s best ensembles for a while, the cast including Ken Stott and Sari Lennick as Bobby’s parents from the Bronx, and Steve Carell on terrific form as a man of power wrestling with his emotional vulnerabilities.

At moments, Jesse Eisenberg is simply too full-on nervy but overall, he’s highly affecting as a would-be idealist who’s too open to the corruptions of success. And although Kristen Stewart doesn’t seem entirely of the film’s period, she continues to mature as a very subtle performer, unfolding layer after layer of secrets and changes.

– Jonathan Romney, Screen International
 

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