Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.
That’s a quote spoken by Bobby Dorfman, the central character (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in the new Woody Allen film Café Society. And in my opinion, that was the best line of the whole film. And it could only have been written by Woody.
Café Society is not really about society, be it the Hollywood film industry crowd – where the whole town runs on ego, or the Manhattan high society that is home to the swells decked out in black ties with their trophy wives or the gangster’s molls awash in jewels and furs. Yes, these are the folks that do all the night club trotting, and champagne swilling, that enables them to be called rich.
In reality, Cafe Society is a three-cornered love story with the ‘society’ continually flitting into the film, or showing up in the margins, in one scene after another.
There’s more of the Hollywood name dropping than you can imagine. Adolph Menjou nearly walked off the set. I’m working on a big deal for Irene Dunne. This is where Joan Crawford lives, and on and on.
Said another way, this is just Woody being Woody. When the young protagonist, Bobby Dorfman, out of the Bronx, finally gets some footing in the Hollywood Hills – he’s hired by his Uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell).
Phil is a leading Hollywood mover and shaker, and king of the agent biz across town, and a philanderer. Bobby will be a glorified go-fer (agent to be) and a guest du jour at the various brunches, power lunches, and dinner soirees that Phil will either be hosting, or acting like a king in his court but on foreign turf. You just know that going in, that this sojourn in Bobby’s life can be expected to end badly for him, especially after he says, I’m not used to drinking champagne with my bagels and lox.
When he leaves La-la land, after the romance of his life (with Vonnie played by Kristen Stewart) crashes and burns, it seems that young Dorfman is just the on-screen presence (read that as a stand-in for Woody ) who returns to New York. Woody Allen has never been a big-fan of Hollywood. And Hollywood has never been an ardent admirer of Woody either. If he said as much before, he’s saying it again.
Speaking of which, much of this movie seems like so many of Woody’s recycled plot lines. Nothing new, just more of the same. Then again, Mr. Allen is 80 years of age, and although he has managed to maintain his one film a year output, many are saying that some of it seems a bit tired, or rushed, or incomplete.
Now this is not to say that Cafe Society does not have wonderful moments. Not at all. I think Allen loves the nostalgic look of Hollywood in the thirties’. Or Manhattan. Stuff that he missed while growing up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.
In fact the costumes, the cars, the clothes and the sets are just wonderful to see. One can only imagine the work that went into getting the details so right. Like Phil Stern’s office. Like the movie theater where Bobby and Vonnie took in a film. Or the homes high up in the Hollywood hills.
Or even the tres chic Manhattan night club that Bobby ended up managing after his Hollywood career and proposal to Vonnie failed.
But it was in this very night club that Bobby meets another Veronica. This one is played by Blake Lively, and her entrance into the club, as well as the look she offered to Bobby was unforgettable.
So much so, that it is worth seeing again.
Dorfman, as managing host at this club, made it his business to welcome everyone who entered the club. That’s him in the white dinner jacket and black tie in the foreground. Take a good look at that shot.
You will see so much of Bobby Dorfman’s right ear, over and over, that the impression of it is burned into your brain. Allen, whose films are almost exclusively shot on film, for Cafe Society. he hired veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storare who shot this film digitally.
The results are impressive, and that is an understatement if there ever was one. That is aside from the repeated two-headed shots in every conversation. Always over Eisenberg’s right shoulder, or Stewart’s or Lively’s left shoulder.
Except when Phil Stern and Bobby spoke it was more head on with more of the two people in the frame than not..
But California has never looked better. Which brings me to another point. The film is not a new story. Older man, younger woman – we’ve seen and heard about this before. Hollywood vs New York – that too sounds like old hat.
A young man, Eisenberg, who is not only the lead actor in the film, he does a remarkable physical representation of Woody himself. The tics, the nervous energy, the mannerism all are straight out of the Woody catalog.
In fact there’s one scene with Young Bobby and an even younger prostitute. It seems that Bobby hasn’t paid a woman for sex until now, and this woman hasn’t received payment for her sexual favors ever before. It was a good idea – but it went on and on and on. Far too long. And yes, each of the actors said the same things again and again.
The character is called Candy, and they make it a point to clarify that Candy is not short for Candace. The actress in the role is Anna Camp.
Okay the film looks great, and the music of the 30’s was superb, but there’s not much of story. Mr. Allen wanted to recreate the look and times of the 30’s in Hollywood and New York. So if we were scoring the film on nostalgia alone, it would be a winner.
That leaves us with the acting. Though I’m not much of an Eisenberg fan, I must admit that as the centerpiece of the film, he was actually quite good. From his arrival in Hollywood, at the fictional Ali Baba Hotel (wondering if that was Allenese for the historically famous Garden of Allah Apartments – the real life hangout of everyone from Bogie, to Hemingway, to Thalberg – as the somewhat boyish looking young man who was all energy and hunched shoulders, and nervous tics, he grew into being a smart and sophisticated New Yorker.
Kristen Stewart as Vonnie was amazing. She was the young woman out of Nebraska who was caught between the two men in this three-cornered romance.
And she manages to steal almost every scene she’s in.
Stoll, Lively, and the Dorman parents – Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott have small roles – but the’re all very good. Steve Carell as Phil Stern is kind of a wonder as he performs rather in an understated way, for a part that made him out to be one of the biggest and most important players in Hollywood.
I’ll bring the film in at three-point five out of five. It will never be called one of Allen’s best, but it has its moments. It is light-weight and fluffy and definitely a film without much of an impact – that is besides the look, feel, and sound. If only the actors had better lines to say.
Check out the trailer –
The film has not opened into wide distribution yet. It is still in what they call limited release. In fact, I had to drive up to Bluffton, South Carolina (a 35 minute drive) to see it, as it hasn’t opened in either Pooler, GA, or Savannah, GA yet. Hence the poster at the top of the review has an opening date still in the future.