Glamorous 'Café Society' explores the shallowness of fame and fortune
Posted August 2, 2016
“CAFE SOCIETY” — 3 stars — Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell; PG-13 (some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking); in general release
“Café Society” is set in a glamorous 1930s world that feels light-years from the Great Depression. It’s a love story for characters that don’t really deserve love, and a criticism of the shallowness of fame from a director who has always shunned it.
Woody Allen's latest film opens in Hollywood at a lavish house party hosted by a big-time agent named Phil Stern. Stern is played by Steve Carrell in a way that closely echoes his famous turn as Michael Scott on TV’s “The Office.” He’s abrasive, pompous and deeply flawed. Every phone call he takes is a name-dropping performance for the benefit of anyone who can overhear his conversation. But judging by his surroundings, he’s also very successful.
Stern has a problem. His nephew Bobby has just arrived in town from New York in search of his own Hollywood dream, and he’s hoping Uncle Phil will get his foot in the door. Bobby is played by Jesse Eisenberg as a perfect evolution — not an impression — of the characters Allen himself played in his earlier films.
Stern avoids Bobby as long as he can but eventually decides to let his nephew run menial errands for him. He pairs Bobby up with his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and Bobby is smitten immediately. Vonnie is beautiful, sophisticated and seemingly above all the shallow pandering of the ritzy world around her. She’s also Uncle Phil’s secret mistress.
This love triangle is merely the setup for the multi-layered drama to come. Stern waffles back and forth on whether to leave his wife for Vonnie. Vonnie becomes impatient and slowly falls for Bobby. Bobby feels ambivalent about Hollywood, decides he’d rather run home to New York with Vonnie at his side and asks his uncle for advice. And around and around it goes.
Bobby eventually returns to New York City alone and starts working at his brother’s nightclub. It’s a great arrangement, aside from the fact that Bobby’s brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is a gangster. As Bobby blossoms from naïve young man into confident businessman, he wins the heart of a beautiful socialite named Veronica (Blake Lively), and they are married. But deep down, he still carries a torch for the girl in the sunshine back in California. Then the sunshine girl shows up in New York on Uncle Phil’s arm, and things go around and around again.
It’s hard to find someone to cheer for in “Café Society,” though that weakness doesn’t make the film any less interesting to watch. The victims are perpetrators and the perpetrators are victims, and the comings and goings of the characters juggle comedy and drama while exploring themes like fame and fidelity. And anyone who was disappointed in the ending to Allen’s 2014 effort “Magic in the Moonlight” will probably find “Café Society’s” conclusion much more satisfying.
“Café Society” is also gorgeous to look at, thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The film is an effective blend of Allen’s beloved New York settings with the more adventurous locales he’s explored in recent years, and it’s idealized Depression-defying glamour serves to underscore the insulated world the director is criticizing.
There’s something odd and amusing about seeing so many established Hollywood stars packing a film so bent on exposing the meaninglessness of the movie star lifestyle. But there’s no conflict on the part of the director, who has operated outside of that sphere for his whole career. “Café Society” may not go down as one of Allen’s all-time bests, but it is a sobering and magical creation that offers a complex statement from a veteran filmmaker.
“Cafe Society” is rated PG-13 for some violence, a drug reference, suggestive material and smoking; running time: 96 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.