Another year another Woody Allen film. You have to go back to 2004 to the last time he failed to release one. Cafe Society sees him venturing away from his native home of New York (at least briefly) to take in the glamour of Hollywood.
He does so in the shoes of Jesse Eisenberg’s Bobby, who it’s safe to say in days gone by would have been played by Woody himself. A week after Edward Norton pulled off a rather passable impression of the man via the medium of a bagel it’s Eisenberg’s time to step into the boots.
Having left New York behind Bobby ends up at his Uncle Phil’s agency (Steve Carell) in LA. There he is placed in the helpful hands of Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) who he quickly falls for. Unfortunately, she’s off the market and despite their ever-tightening relationship it is not to be. Throw in a gangster subplot and some truly stunning shots of Hollywood and you have all the ingredients for a good time.
Which you will get. This is Woody Allen doing that Woody Allen thing. From philosophical musings to awkward confrontations with prostitutes. If you have dipped even the smallest of toes into his back-catalogue nothing here will catch you off guard. Which is fine, but well over forty films into his career a standard Allen doesn’ cut it anymore. It takes more than pretty scenery to impress when you made Annie Hall.
Thankfully, it is occasionally elevated by its leads. Eisenberg and Stewart are now on their third collaboration, and their easy on-screen chemistry makes spending time in their company delightful. It’s also a lot easier to believe that Eisenberg is able to surround himself with these beautiful women than it ever was with Woody. Meanwhile, those who still dismiss Stewart as the lass from Twilight are truly missing out. Recent years have seen her develop into a brilliant young actress, and she continues that here. She doesn’t look out of place in the glamour of 30’s Hollywood, and charisma – which so many claim she lacks – bursts out of this film.
Elsewhere, Steve Carell continues to prove that he is so much more than dumb comedy as Hollywood agent Phil. He is the perfect bridge between Bobby’s uptight Jewish family in New York and Hollywood glamour. There’s also a scene-stealing turn from gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) who gets many of the film’s biggest laughs as he murders his way through those that displease him.
None of that does enough to get past the feeling that this is a decidedly lightweight piece of filmmaking. It’s pretty to look at but scratch beneath the surface and what do you find? Do we need another study of a young man finding his way in the world alongside a batch of unrequited love? It seems harsh to compare modern releases to Allen’s best, how many times can a director be expected to reach those heights? And yet 2013’s Blue Jasmine showed that Woody is still perfectly capable of releasing cinema that means more than pretty people spouting witty one-liners.
It’s not a large enough problem to make Cafe Society anything less than an enjoyable watch. It’s such a beautiful film to look at that if Vittorio Storaro’s visuals were the only thing on screen, you’d probably be alright with that. However, if you in the wonderful position of discovering the work of Woody Allen for the first time, then there are countless films to get through before this one should even be a speck in the distance.